Multifaceted Effort to Address School Segregation

With school segregation persisting, VCU education professor urges a multifaceted, concerted effort to fix it

Genevieve Siegel-Hawley recently worked on two reports putting the intersection of school segregation, land use and housing reform into focus

March 25, 2024

by Sian Wilkerson, VCU News

Research has shown that all students gain wide-ranging benefits from racially and socioeconomically integrated schools, which foster success through improved academic achievement, social mobility, civic engagement, and empathy and understanding.

So why does school segregation persist?

Virginia Commonwealth University professor Genevieve Siegel-Hawley said it starts with a lack of deliberate response from policymakers.

“A big message from the empirical analysis of suburban school segregation is that we’re just not being intentional about any of it, through law or policy,” said Siegel-Hawley, Ph.D., a professor in VCU’s School of Education in the Department of Educational Leadership. “There’s a real vacuum of response, and that is allowing segregation to spread and intensify.”

Siegel-Hawley recently worked on a pair of reports focused on school segregation.

In a brief for the National Education Policy Center that looks at how land use and housing reforms might reduce segregation in schools, she offered recommendations for federal and state policymakers that include ending exclusionary land use policies and establishing grant programs to support housing development near diverse, well-resourced schools.

“School and housing worlds are siloed, and too often policymakers in those two spaces do not interact,” Siegel-Hawley said. “While we might have some momentum around the country for reforming land use and housing to build more affordable housing, too often access to high-quality, diverse schools has been left out of that conversation.”

She also co-authored a report for the UCLA Civil Rights Project analyzing the scope of suburban school segregation. It highlighted how patterns of school segregation that policy and law have historically confined to central cities are now spreading into suburban environments, with the growth of charter schools and school closures disproportionately affecting Black and Latinx students.

VCU News spoke with Siegel-Hawley about her research and how school segregation can be addressed.

What is different between school segregation before the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision in 1954 and now?

A dominant narrative that we tell ourselves is that we had Brown v. Board of Education, we ended segregation, all done. In some ways the conversation has moved, but I certainly don’t think that’s touched everybody.

One key distinction today is that school segregation is ostensibly illegal. But there’s this blurry line between de facto segregation and de jure segregation, or segregation by fact and by law. There’s this great quote by [former lawmaker and federal official] Leon Panetta, who said, “Every time you lift the rock of de facto segregation, something ugly and de jure crawls out from under it.” It’s the idea that those laws and practices are more covert now but are still very much with us, whether it’s mortgage discrimination, discrimination in real estate, the way we draw school attendance boundaries, the way district boundaries divide kids and resources – all of those things are structural and drivers of school segregation today.

Who is looking at the relationship between school and housing segregation in a better way?

There is a group I would point you to called the Bridges Collaborative, a school integration initiative run by The Century Foundation that seeks to increase the number of students attending diverse and integrated schools by fostering collaboration among school and housing partners.

Another concrete example that is ongoing but rooted in the past is Montgomery County, Maryland, where in the early 1970s the population exploded and county policymakers approved a policy that would set aside 15% of all new housing for affordable housing. That created the situation where affordable housing was sprinkled throughout the county in ways that it usually isn’t.

In 2010, there was an interesting study in the county that found that kids living in affordable housing and enrolled in economically diverse schools were doing much better academically over time when it came to test scores than students attending schools of concentrated poverty, where the county was funneling a good deal of extra resources such as high-quality tutoring or extended school days. So that’s a housing policy, but it has educational impacts for kids.

What else can be done?

There’s lots we can do because right now we’re doing so little. One general idea that would have a big impact would be to think about how we organize school district boundaries and do we need to update those more regularly. That gets at the importance of thinking regionally about issues of segregation.

It’s really hard for single jurisdictions to go it alone and sustainably fix what are metropolitan-level issues (though individual localities absolutely should commit to addressing segregation within their borders). Enforcing fair housing laws with an eye toward schools and building a multisector effort – those things are all really important. Also, individuals and individual families have agency to make more integrative choices, and they need to be supported better by policy and structure.

The big-picture takeaway from both reports is that we need to be more intentional. We have to think about this in a multifaceted and nuanced way. We need leadership at all levels of government but particularly at the federal and state level. For starters, I would love to see some intentionality around bringing the school and housing worlds together on a regular basis in dialogue.



Read Sian Wilkerson’s VCU News article: