Racial and Class Segregation Worsen in PA Public Schools

Waslala Miranda |

A report by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project shows that racial and economic class segregation continue to worsen in Pennsylvania’s public schools, with low-income minority children bearing the brunt of limited educational opportunities.  As minority and low-income children make up an increasing share of public school children in the state, this new era of double segregation is threatening their education and our future.

Fifty years ago, research found that the two most powerful predictors of student achievement are first, the socioeconomic status of a child’s family, and second, the socioeconomic status of a child’s classmates.  The UCLA researchers found that over the past two decades, Pennsylvania has seen the number of intensely segregated schools—those in which more than 90% of students are minorities—more than double.  Furthermore, there is near-total overlap between race and class as 85% of children attending these schools are also low-income.  This creates a one-two punch for these students, decreasing their odds at succeeding academically.

Across Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, we see a rise in racial and class isolation, even as the state’s student population becomes more diverse.  UCLA found that from 1989-2010 the share of Latino students tripled, and the share of Asian students doubled across the state.

Despite Pennsylvania school children being 72% white in 2010-11:

  • The typical black student attended a school that was 30% white.
  • The average Latino student attended a school that was 39% white.
  • The typical white student attended a school that was 85% white.

When you see high levels of racial and class segregation, it shouldn’t be surprising to see achievement gaps show up along racial and class lines.

Figure 1: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Analysis

However, there is also research by the Century Foundation that shows that when low-income children attend low-poverty schools, they help close the achievement gap.  Low-income fourth graders who attend low-poverty schools end up pulling ahead of low-income students in high-poverty schools in math—by two years.  Moreover, RAND looked at the affordable housing policies of Montgomery County, Maryland, and found that the desegregation of schools is better at improving the academic achievement of low-income students than increasing funding of high-poverty schools.

Beyond Maryland, other counties and cities are looking at how to break down racial and class segregation.  Pennsylvania could gain from fighting segregation, too.  To continue the status quo jeopardizes the educational opportunities of an increasing number of our children.  A state that doesn’t develop its human capital will be left behind economically.