Study Snapshot: School and Residential Segregation in Districts With Voluntary Integration Policies

For Immediate Release: April 15, 2018

Tony Pals,
(202) 238-3235, (202) 288-9333 (cell)

Collin Boylin,
(202) 238-3233, (860) 490-8326 (cell)

Study Snapshot: “School and Residential Segregation in Districts With Voluntary Integration Policies”


Study: “School and Residential Segregation in Districts With Voluntary Integration Policies”
Authors: Jeremy Anderson (Pennsylvania State University), Kendra Taylor (Pennsylvania State University), Erica Frankenberg (Pennsylvania State University)

This study will be presented at the 2018 AERA Annual Meeting 

Date/Time: Sunday, April 15, 10:35 a.m. to 12:05 p.m.

Main Finding:

  • Across 60 school districts with voluntary integration policies, average school-level racial segregation remained constant from 2000 to 2015, while economic segregation decreased by 1.8 percentage points. 


  • Waves of integration that occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s have subsided in the wake of several influential court cases that allowed many districts to be released from court oversight. The result has been growing segregation in the nation’s schools.
  • Since the Supreme Court’s 2007 Parents Involved decision, which limited one of the most popular and effective ways to design voluntary integration policies, residential segregation also remains high, though it has been declining modestly in recent decades.
  • The current environment for voluntary integration is demographically, legally, and politically complex for districts to navigate. In light of judicial decisions, the ways districts now design integration plans is much more complex. A number of districts have switched to race-neutral integration, while others consider the racial composition of the area students live in, along with other socioeconomic characteristics.
  • Along with variations in how districts conceptualize diversity, there are many different methods of assigning students, and newer integration policies differ from earlier versions in their use of student school choice. In some districts, parents or other community actors have pushed for less choice and more stability through geographically based school assignments that may or may not have the intention of creating diversity.
  • For their study, the authors identified 60 districts across the nation that had been implementing voluntary integration. Diversity, either racial or socioeconomic, or both, was a policy consideration in the development of these districts’ school assignment, choice, and transfer policies.   
  • In the districts with voluntary integration, on average, school-level racial segregation increased by 0.1 percentage points from 2000 to 2015, while economic segregation dropped by 1.8 percentage points.
  • The authors used eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch subsidies as their measure of students’ economic background. They note that during this time, eligibility for free/reduced-price lunch subsidies increased rapidly, making the decline in economic segregation even more impressive.
  • The school-level racial segregation of students is also considerably lower than the residential segregation of the entire population in the 60 districts, which was fairly high throughout 2000 to 2015. This comparison is helpful for understanding that lower levels of school segregation in these districts are likely not driven solely by lower residential segregation.
  • The average segregation patterns in the districts track national patterns of increasing racial segregation but diverge from the national pattern of growing income segregation. The authors note that this finding is not surprising since far more districts rely on socioeconomic indicators than race-conscious indicators to promote diversity.
  • Thirteen of the districts analyzed used race as a factor in their integration policies, while all districts also considered socioeconomic status (some used both race and socioeconomic factors). The study found a variety of ways districts defined and measured race or socioeconomic status, drawing on district data sources as well as national datasets like the U.S. Census and American Community Survey. 
  • The most common methods of voluntary integration were periodic adjustments to attendance zone boundaries and the use of magnet schools. Eleven of the 60 districts studied used more than one integration method.
  • The authors found that districts using race-conscious policies had less school-level racial segregation, on average, than districts using race-natural plans. That was especially noteworthy given that districts had similar levels of residential segregation regardless of whether they used race-conscious or race-neutral plans. Moreover, districts with more comprehensive plans, such as district-wide choice, or that used attendance zone boundaries, had lower segregation, on average.
  • “Our findings come at a time when the benefits of integration are more widely known than before—for students of color as well as white students—and there is a rise in the number of students of color who are assigned to racially isolated schools,” said study co-author Erica Frankenberg, an associate professor of education and demography at Pennsylvania State University. “With so much at risk, it is critical to better understand how districts seek to pursue school integration.”

To request a copy of the full paper, or to talk to study authors, please contact AERA Communications: Tony Pals, Director of Communications,, cell: (202) 288-9333; Collin Boylin, Communications Associate,, cell: (860) 490-8326

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The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.