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, 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.

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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.