School segregation, school boards, and politics

A study published last month by Hugh Macartney of Duke University and John Singleton of the University of Rochester examines how the political composition of school boards in North Carolina is affecting segregation.

They consider elementary schools under the purview of 109 school boards across the state from 2008–2013. Year-to-year changes in school attendance zones and segregation rates are then correlated with the election of Democratic school board members.

They find that an increase in the proportion of Democrats on an elected school board was associated with a significant decrease in racial segregation in those district’s schools. When Democrats gained a majority on a school board, for example, racial segregation decreased by as much as 18 percent. And when Democrats are elected to school boards—regardless of whether this created a Democratic majority—changes in school assignments increased by 0.19 standard deviations over the following five-year period. In other words, students switched schools within that district at a greater rate—due perhaps to things like changed attendance boundaries, the introduction of controlled choice programs, or other efforts to integrate the schools. (Note, however, that determining specific causes for the observed changes is beyond the scope of the study.)

Macartney and Singleton also find that a greater Democratic presence on a school board is correlated with a decrease in the proportion of white students in that district—which, because the external boundaries of the district aren’t changing, suggests that white families are leaving the district or opting for private schools. This was especially true when an election caused a newly Democratic majority, with an average 6-percentage point decrease in the proportion of white students.

But, analysts note, their results do not indicate that Republicans are actively working to increase segregation in schools—they’re simply more likely to leave school assignments as is

So what to make of all of this? As Democrats vote to integrate the schools, some whites vote with their feet and go elsewhere. As historians can tell you, this is not a new story.

SOURCE: Hugh Macartney and John D. Singleton, “School Boards and Student Segregation,” NBER (July 2017).

Nicholas Munyan-Penney
Nicholas Munyan-Penney Development and Research Associate