School segregation by race and poverty is deepening in Virginia, report finds

The report, “School Segregation by Boundary Line in Virginia: Scope, Significance and State Policy Solutions,” was produced by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University and Penn State.

Students boarding a school bus.
A new report by researchers at VCU and Penn State finds that school segregation by race and poverty is deepening in Virginia. (Getty Images)

School segregation by race and poverty is deepening in Virginia, but state and local policy measures could lead to more integration and better educational opportunities, according to a new report by researchers at the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Center for Education and Civil Rights at Penn State.

The report, “School Segregation by Boundary Line in Virginia: Scope, Significance and State Policy Solutions,” explores the landscape of school segregation in Virginia and lays out a variety of state-level policy recommendations designed to help local divisions better understand and address the role boundaries play in structuring segregation.

“School boundaries matter. The lines separating school districts and school communities within those districts continue to shape racial and economic segregation and educational opportunity. They are also subject to change, and with some regularity,” said Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, Ph.D., an associate professor at the VCU School of Education. “Each process related to change offers school officials a chance to confront segregation and inequality — or make it worse.”

“In this report, we’re trying to think about both the local level and the state level simultaneously in terms of how to make policy to support reducing segregation. Virginia is a really opportune place to do that because of its diversity. It can and should be a model for other states to constructively address changing demographics and to reduce inequality,” said Penn State professor Erica Frankenberg, Ed.D., director of the Center for Education and Civil Rights.

The report reveals that segregation among schools in the same division contributes to half or more of all multiracial school segregation in Virginia’s metropolitan regions, including central Virginia (56%), Tidewater (50%) and Northern Virginia (63%). It also found that school division boundaries surrounding independent cities are related to higher school segregation across Virginia’s rural and metro regions.

The report makes several state policy recommendations for new training, research and data collection related to segregation. It also calls for Virginia to develop a definition of school segregation, followed by new reporting, monitoring and enforcement.

Among the report’s proposed policies to address school segregation are recommendations to:

  •  Use the state bully pulpit to amplify the importance of reducing school segregation and promoting integration for students and communities.
  •  Establish an office or department in the Virginia Department of Education to support voluntary integration and reduce segregation within and among schools.
  •  Establish certification requirements for superintendents, school boards, principals and teachers related to school segregation and integration.
  •  Authorize new state data collection for public use related to school attendance boundaries. As part of Virginia's required updates to its Every Student Succeeds Act plan, the state should consider including school segregation and integration as part of its accountability measures.
  •  Implement a grant program to support voluntary integration.
  •  Study, define, evaluate and address racial/ethnic and economic school segregation.
  •  Increase school board capacity to address segregation as part of rezoning processes.

“School segregation is a fundamental barrier to equitable educational opportunity and outcomes. It is also antithetical to preparation for citizenship in a multiracial democracy,” Siegel-Hawley said. “After decades of neglect, policymakers should urgently confront this issue, starting with raising awareness and followed by concrete policy action and accountability. We offer a lengthy list of policy priorities for state and local stakeholders in the report.”

The research team behind the report has a wide range of expertise in the areas of race, education, law, civil rights, politics, school board governance, state and federal policy and consultancy around the technical aspects of school rezoning.

“We’ve been tracking for a while now the ways that boundaries within and between districts structure segregation,” Siegel-Hawley said. “We’ve also drawn attention to the fact that those same lines, which are redrawn for a lot of reasons, could be used to further integration. So we wanted to zero in on it, and Virginia was an ideal state because so many differing districts (e.g., city and suburban, of varying sizes) have recently gone through rezoning processes.”

The report draws on a variety of data sources, including federal and state school enrollment data, Virginia school board policies and media accounts related to rezoning. The researchers are sharing the data with the Virginia Department of Education and other K-12 stakeholders, and also have been providing updates on their work to Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni.

“Moving forward, the team is committed to continuing to work with education leaders on ways to translate the findings into policy and practice,” Siegel-Hawley said.

About VCU and VCU Health

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 30,000 students in 233 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Twenty-two of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 11 schools and three colleges. The VCU Health brand represents the VCU health sciences academic programs, the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the VCU Health System, which comprises VCU Medical Center (the only academic medical center in the region), Community Memorial Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, and MCV Physicians. The clinical enterprise includes a collaboration with Sheltering Arms Institute for physical rehabilitation services. For more, please visit www.vcu.edu and vcuhealth.org.

About the Penn State College of Education and CECR

Accredited since 1965, the Penn State College of Education offers a number of flexible academic offerings, including eight majors with teacher preparation in 20 specialty degree programs — as well as a selection of majors that will prepare students for a variety of other education-related careers in the fields of policymaking, rehabilitation and human services, educational psychology, counseling, special education, workforce education and more. The Center for Education and Civil Rights, housed within the College of Education at Penn State, is a hub for the generation of knowledge and coalition-building among the education and civil rights communities to promote research-based actions that address the complicated nature of racial and ethnic inequality in the 21st century. The center’s collective work is intended to promote equity across the educational pipeline by supporting efforts that facilitate integration through an interdisciplinary approach that bridges research and practice. For more information, visit cecr.ed.psu.edu.