School Segregation*

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The extent to which students within different race and ethnicity groups are unevenly distributed across schools when compared with the racial and ethnic composition of the local population. The index ranges from 0 to 1 with lower values representing a school composition that approximates race and ethnicity distributions in the student populations within the county, and higher values representing more segregation. The 2023 County Health Rankings used data from 2021-2022 for this measure.

The Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court case declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional in 1954, and this famous case followed the 1946 federal court case Mendez v. Westminster School District, which ruled segregation of Mexican American students unconstitutional. Progress toward desegregation was slow and met with much opposition. One example of such opposition has been recounted where Native students of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians were permitted to ride buses to previously all-white schools in Alabama, but only if the Native students had skin deemed light enough.1 Desegregation of schools peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1991, under the Dowell decision, the Supreme Court ruled that desegregation efforts may be dissolved. As a result of such legal rulings, patterns of segregated living, school enrollment, and contact between racial groups in public schools have declined.2 Approximately 37% of Black students in the U.S. enrolled in majority white schools in 1988, but in 2018, the percentage declined to 19%. Currently, Black students attend schools with more Hispanics than whites.3 For Hispanic students, school segregation has steadily increased with population shifts and Hispanic students now face higher levels of segregation nationally than Black students.

The Brown decision deemed the doctrine of “separate but equal” unconstitutional and acknowledged that equality in segregation is not possible; a reality underscored by recent statistics showing that Black and Hispanic students are most likely to experience intense segregation in school, and also most likely to be concentrated in under-resourced, high-poverty schools, with less experienced and credentialed teachers, and higher teacher turnover.3-5 White and Native students are disproportionately found outside of metro areas, and in rural areas these students can face high levels of segregation and similar barriers to success including high poverty and its negative implications for educational achievement.6

School segregation strongly reflects residential segregation; however, the policies that drive school and residential segregation are under the jurisdictions of separate decision-making bodies, creating multiple avenues for progress.7 School segregation is more highly associated with achievement gaps than residential segregation, which suggests that school segregation may affect additional pathways to student achievement beyond those explained by residential segregation (e.g., teacher retention and credentials, school resources, breadth of curriculum, and advanced course offerings).4

“Majority-minority schools” can be culturally affirming by centering ways of being for students who may otherwise find themselves on the margins; however, risk of inequity is introduced by the demonstrated relationships between economic segregation, racial segregation, and academic opportunities.8 Studies show that racial/ethnic segregation in schools is negatively associated with achievement, college success, long-term employment, and income for students of color. School segregation leads to racial gaps in the identification of students who would benefit from special education, perpetuating racial gaps into adulthood.9

In addition to negatively impacting opportunities for students in schools experiencing disinvestment, school segregation can hinder the development of diverse perspectives. In the U.S., social networks continue to be homogeneous – for example, the majority of white adults in the U.S. have entirely white social networks.10 While not without challenges, studies have found that students in diverse, well-resourced schools have more opportunities to gain civic benefits including skills in working collaboratively across lines of difference, development of equitable and inclusive habits, and experience in aggregating wisdom.11

Find strategies to address School Segregation*

Data and methods

Data Source

National Center for Education Statistics

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) fulfills a Congressional mandate to collect, collate, analyze, and report complete statistics on the condition of American education; conduct and publish reports; and review and report on education activities internationally.

NCES is the primary federal entity responsible for collecting and analyzing data related to education. For states where cohort graduation data was not available, the Average Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR) was used. AFGR by county were estimated based on school district information provided to us by the NCES.

Website to download data

Key Measure Methods

School Segregation is an index

School Segregation measures how evenly representation of racial and ethnic groups in the student population is spread across schools using Theil's Index, a segregation index. The index ranges from 0 to 1 with lower values representing a school composition that approximates race and ethnicity distributions in the student populations within the county, and higher values representing more segregation.

Some data are suppressed

An estimate is only calculated when at least two of the race-ethnicity categories have 25 or more students in at least one school within a given county.

Measure limitations

NCES data is limited in that it does not include private school students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 11% of students attended private schools in 2019. The opportunity for a given student to attend a school across districts is not independent of race. Private schools in the U.S. disproportionately serve white and higher-income families. 

School segregation can occur at a variety of levels (e.g., school, district, county, region), by measuring at the county-level we are inevitably underreporting the amount of school segregation taking place in certain regions of the country. For instance, if school segregation is largely occurring between counties, and not within counties, this measure will vastly underestimate the true burden.

Multiple factors lead to the negative outcomes associated with school segregation. This measure cannot capture the interplay between school resources, economic segregation, racial segregation, and academic achievement. 

Can This Measure Be Used to Track Progress

This measure can be used to track progress.

Finding More Data

Disaggregation means breaking data down into smaller, meaningful subgroups. Disaggregated data are often broken down by characteristics of people or where they live. Disaggregated data can reveal inequalities that are otherwise hidden. These data can be disaggregated by:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Education
  • Subcounty Area

The National Center for Education Statistics, provides a variety of student data. This measure could be created at different grade levels, geographic level, free-lunch status, etc.


1 Bender, Albert. (2014, Feb. 13). Dr. King spoke out against the genocide of Native Americans. People’s World. 

2 Fiel, J. E., & Zhang, Y. (2017). Three Dimensions of Change in School Segregation: A Grade-Period-Cohort Analysis. Demography, 55(1), 33–58. 

3 Orfield, G. & Jarvie, D. (2020). Black segregation matters – School resegregation and Black educational opportunity, The Civil Rights Project. 

4 Orfield, G., Ee, J., Frankenberg, E., & Siegel-Hawley, G. (2016). “Brown” at 62: School Segregation by Race, Poverty and State. Civil Rights Project / Proyecto Derechos Civiles. 

5 Frankenberg, Erica, Jongyeon Ee, Jennifer B. Syscue, Gary Orfield. Harming our Common Future: America’s Segregated School 65 Years after Brown. The Civil Rights Project. Center for Education and Civil Rights, 2019. Accessed 9 Feb. 2021.

6 Logan, J. R., & Burdick-Will, J. (2017). School Segregation and Disparities in Urban, Suburban, and Rural Areas. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 674(1), 199–216. 

7 Siegel-Hawley, G., & Frankenberg, E. (2018). NEPC Review: “Balancing Act: Schools, Neighborhoods and Racial Imbalance” (Brookings Institution, November 2017). Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

8 Harris III, O. D. (2012). From Margin to Center: Participating in Village Pedagogy at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The Urban Review, 44(3), 332–357.

9 Elder, Todd E., David N Figlio, Scott A Imerman, and Claudia L Persico. School Segregation and Racial Gaps in Special Education Identification. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2019, Accessed 9 Feb. 2021.

10 Race, Religion, and Political Affiliation of Americans’ Core Social Networks. (n.d.). PRRI. Retrieved January 30, 2022, from

11 Levinson, M. L. (2012). Diversity and Civic Education.

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