May 17, 2024 - Education

Segregation in Philadelphia schools remains "stubbornly high"

Choropleth map of U.S. counties showing the estimated level of segregation between Black and white students in K-12 public schools. Schools in counties in the southern U.S., southern California and Northeast tend to be more segregated than counties in the Pacific Northwest and Midwest.
Data: Stanford Education Data Archive; Note: Index ranges from 0 to 1, where 0 implies no segregation (all schools have identical proportions of Black and white students) while 1 implies complete segregation (no Black student attends a school with any white students, and vice versa); Map: Axios Visuals

Philadelphia public schools are roughly as segregated as they were 30 years ago, per a new study.

The big picture: Friday marks the 70th anniversary of the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education ruling — meant to end legal school segregation in the U.S. But even though the U.S. is more racially and ethnically diverse than ever, racial segregation has increased dramatically in American schools in recent decades.

  • That has coincided with the rise of charter schools and school choice options, and as civil rights groups have turned away from desegregation battles.

Why it matters: Segregated schools disproportionately hurt Black and Latino students because those schools tend to have fewer resources, more teacher shortages and fewer advanced class options.

State of play: Black students in Philly's K-12 public schools are far less likely to share classrooms with white students, compared to other large school districts in the U.S., per an index from Stanford and University of Southern California researchers.

  • Segregation between Black and white students in Philadelphia has remained "stubbornly high" since 1991, Ann Owens, a professor of sociology and public policy at USC, tells Axios.

What they're saying: "It feels like Philadelphia is a poster child in failed efforts to desegregate" its schools, Tim Patterson, an education expert/researcher at Temple University, tells Axios.

Reality check: Philly has made some progress.

  • Segregation between white and Hispanic students, and segregation between students who are eligible and ineligible for free lunch has declined about 15%-20% over the past 30 years.

Context: Before the Brown decision, racial segregation in Philly schools was the norm and exacerbated by other forms of institutional racism, like redlining, that racially divided neighborhoods.

  • In the wake of the landmark 1954 decision, the Philly district endured decades of legal battles, court mandates and community pressures — both to integrate and maintain de facto segregation in its schools.

But integration efforts in Philly schools will likely continue to stall due to the segregation of the city's neighborhoods and other non-school related issues, Patterson says.

  • "As long as we live in segregated communities, the schools are going to reflect those communities," he said.

By the numbers: Students of color made up 82% of Philadelphia's public school population in 2022, per the Stanford report.

  • White students accounted for nearly 14% of the student population, even though the white population of the city is around 34%.

Zoom out: The data shows segregation between Black and white students is more prevalent in suburban Delaware County, whereas schools in Chester, Montgomery and Bucks counties are far more integrated.

What we're watching: Philadelphia revised the district's special-admission process for criteria-based schools, some of which have fewer Black and Latino students enrolled than their district counterparts. The changes take effect this upcoming school year.


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