Increasing School Diversity: Setbacks and Ways Forward

Increasing School Diversity: Setbacks and Ways Forward

image via wake county schools

Diversity is good for students.

Quite a lot of research — really a lot — shows that the segregation of schools, both racial and economic,  impedes student achievement.  One study of the New Jersey public schools from 2020 found that racially diverse schools reduced the achievement gap between white and non-white students:  “the achievement gap between Black and White third grade students was lower by more than 60% in racially diverse districts when compared to racially homogeneous districts. This result is consistent with theories of peer spillover effects that implicate peer racial diversity in reducing the achievement gap.”   Of course, that conclusion means that racially segregated schools  either failed to decrease or  actually increased the gap for children of color.  There’s also research showing that economic segregation has a detrimental effect on student achievement; preschool programs targeted to poor children are far less successful at producing gains than programs open to students of all socioeconomic levels.  A study of North Carolina schools found that schools with “concentrated poverty” where 75% or more students qualified for Free or Reduced Lunch (FRL) had a negative effect on student achievement compared to schools that were low poverty (25% or fewer students qualifying for FRL)1.  That same study found that schools with high concentrations of non-white students (over 75%) replicated these same effects.*  What’s really interesting about the results from this study is that the effects were true for all students in high-poverty schools, regardless of race.  White students in heavily non-white schools tended to do less well than their white peers in more affluent, racially segregated schools.  The obvious solution is to make sure that no one school in any school district has fewer than 25% white students or more than 49% FRL.**  But achieving school diversity is becoming increasingly tricky because of a handful of court decisions that are affecting the criteria districts are allowed to use when deciding who to admit.

It would be an understatement to say that these decisions aren’t unilateral. Taken as a whole,  they sometimes seem to be trying to go two different directions at once, depending on which part of the country is under consideration.  A recent pretrial decision in New Jersey found that the state had engaged in de facto segregation of children of color, something New Jersey has a long-standing ban against. In a similar vein, the courts found in 2023 that plaintiffs in Cruz-Goodman v. State of Minnesota did not have to prove that the state caused segregation, only that segregation had led to adverse academic outcomes for students of color.***  Given the body of research, this should not be difficult.  But at the same time, there have been other cases that seem to be trying to push against desegregation.  One that many worry will “trickle down” to K-12 schools is Students for Fair Admission v. Harvard (and later University of North Carolina).  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the admissions systems at the University of North Carolina (UNC) and Harvard University were racially discriminatory, effectively ending the ability of colleges and universities to consider an applicant’s race as one of many factors in a holistic admissions review process.  Even  places that have used “race neutral” admissions criteria have come under fire.^ One such case is Coalition for TJ v. Fairfax County School Board (4th Cir., 2023), where plaintiffs claimed that the admissions policy at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a selective public school in Virginia included criteria that served as a “proxy” to racially balance the school’s population by reducing the percentage of Asian-American students.   The school argued that their admissions criteria were race-neutral.  These criteria included applicants’ GPA; a “portrait sheet” describing their various skills; a problem-solving essay; and their status as a student with a disability or English learner, a member of a low-income household, or a student attending an underrepresented public middle school.^^ Even the New Jersey pretrial decision mentioned above weirdly tried to have it both ways: the judge ruled that the state had systematically failed to address the problem of racial segregation that exists in its public schools but did not direct the state to do anything about the problem.  This was only a pretrial decision; if it goes to trial, perhaps the judge will provide more concrete steps the state must take to fix the problem.  It does seem to evince a degree of inertia when it comes to addressing the harms stemming from this practice.

This anti-desegregation push strikes me as a little insidious. For example, the argument that disability status, English learner status, income status, or attending an underrepresented middle school is serving as a proxy for racial balancing is a tacit acknowledgement that students of color, English learners, and students in poverty are often one in the same and are frequently siloed in schools where all the students are racially and economically homogenous. It is, in effect, to say that a school can’t consider income, disability status, English learner status, etc. because that is just another means to consider race.  So if a student can’t be included based on race, and they also can’t be included on the basis of any of the other factors, are we to conclude that they just shouldn’t be included at all?  I suppose the argument is that merit alone should be the metric, but that, too, fails to consider some important things:

First, how valid are the metrics at determining true merit?   Success on nationally-normed tests is closely linked to parental income level; the more money your parents make, the better you will do on the test.  Income, too, determines where students live and thus which schools they attend — something the student has exactly zero control over.  Is it fair that a student whose elementary or middle school had sub-par teachers and sub-par materials and limited resources be forced to compete on a test on “even” terms with a student whose school had resources to overflowing and was regarded as a reward for teachers as they gained experience?

Second, the idea of merit doesn’t consider that students frequently rise to the level of the expectations placed on them. Partly this may be a peer effect, but there’s some fascinating research around the LSAT that shows students with lower LSAT scores actually do as well or better in law school than their peers even when admitted for reasons other than their score. In other words, their prior experiences might seem predictive of success (or a lack thereof) in law school, but in fact they are not.  The same is true of children.  I know I’ve said it before, but my favorite piece of research of all time demonstrated that children treated as gifted went on to be identified as gifted using traditional measures.  At the very least this may be a strong indicator that our metrics aren’t the be-all we think they are.  I think we should always hesitate before we pigeon-hole students who are still in the process of developing and learning; we just don’t know what they can become.

Where is this all going?  Hard to say. Some worry, perhaps with some justification, that the Supreme Court will place further restrictions on the criteria schools can use to decide admission.  However, the First Circuit Court of Appeals in a Boston case alleging that race-neutral admissions policies constituted racial discrimination against white and Asian-American students found against plaintiffs in that case,  noting that the policy had reduced overrepresentation of white and Asian-American students and underrepresentation of Black and Latinx students and that because of this it could not be considered racially discriminatory. In other words, balanced admission was the antithesis of discrimination. The court further noted that several Supreme Court justices had indicated separately that race-conscious use of race neutral admissions criteria was permissible. Justice Thomas even went so far as to say that significant racial diversity could be achieved by increasing an institution’s preference for socioeconomically disadvantaged students.  That seems to promise that challenges to using some of the intersectional aspects of race as criteria for admission (zip code, income, home school) will continue to be allowed and may even be wholly supported by the court.   There are some other court decisions that also seem to point to this conclusion which I’m not going to go into here, but it seems that using race-neutral criteria for admissions that include socioeconomic disadvantage and other factors to ensure balanced admissions is the way forward to creating more diverse schools and equal opportunities.


*This is due to a cluster of factors. First, the intersectionality of poverty and minority racial status is well documented. Non-white students are far more likely to be poor. Second, schools with high concentrations of poor students, who are also more likely to be non-white, have lower per-pupil expenditures, fewer fully qualified and/or experienced teachers, higher teacher turnover, outdated or below-grade level materials, and a host of other factors that impact achievement.  

**This proportion of white students reduces the problems enumerated in the above footnote. Maintaining a minimum population of 25% white students keeps per-pupil expenditures higher, resources flowing to the school, and a higher proportion of fully qualified and experienced teachers.

***The issue here is that states argue they didn’t deliberately set out to racially segregate students. Rather, the segregation is due to geography or economic factors beyond their control. So for a NJ judge to say the state failed to address the segregation happening is a pretty strong statement, as is the statement of the MN Supreme Court that it doesn’t matter whether the state deliberately caused the segregation, only whether that segregation resulted in academic harm to the students.

^It’s important to note that in the 2007 case Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the Supreme Court already curtailed the ability of K-12 districts to consider race in admitting students or assigning them to specific schools. That ruling held that K-12 admissions or school assignment policies that aren’t “race-neutral” are probably violating the 14th Amendment unless there’s a compelling reason to consider race.

^^In case you’re wondering, the district court ruled the new plan was discriminatory, but the 4th Circuit Appellate court reversed that decision and reinstated the plan, specifically because plaintiffs couldn’t prove the plan was restricting Asian-American student admissions as they claimed.  In early 2024, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case so that particular battle is at an end but it’s likely not the last case of its kind.  


1 Southworth, S. (2010) Examining the effects of school composition on North Carolina student achievement over time. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 18 (29). Retrieved from






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