Skip to Content
August 10, 2017

Dismantling the House that Byrd Built: School Segregation in the Commonwealth

The shared future of our state and nation depends on having a talented, well-educated workforce that attracts and creates opportunities for all. This includes access to high-quality schools and workforce training programs that equip students with 21st century skills. Yet, 63 years after the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education, schools across the nation and in Virginia still remain segregated, leaving many students from families with low incomes and students of color without the resources they need to succeed.

A recent report from The Center for American Progress highlights a disturbing finding – an increasing number of students attend schools that are highly segregated based on economic status. The report finds that 40 percent of U.S. school districts – 688 school districts in the sample – are either hypersegregated or hyperisolated. Hypersegregated districts have schools with percentages of students from low-income families that vary substantially from the district average. Hyperisolated districts have schools in which most students attend schools where at least three quarters of the students are from families of similar income.

The report flags two Virginia school divisions from the sample as hypersegregated. Over half of the public schools in Henrico and Prince William counties are economically segregated, with percentages of free and reduced student lunch in individual schools varying substantially from the division-wide rate.

Yet segregation in Virginia public schools is not limited to these divisions. A similar analysis done by TCI finds the number of public schools in Virginia with high percentages of students of color and high percentages of low-income students increased from 82 to 136 since the 2003-2004 school year. The number of students enrolled in these schools has more than doubled, rising from 36,061 students to 74,515 students. Statewide, 17 percent of all Black students in Virginia’s public schools and 8 percent of all Hispanic students are enrolled in one of these schools. In contrast, less than 1 percent of the state’s non-Hispanic White students attend these schools.

Richmond City and Norfolk Public Schools have the highest number of these schools in Virginia. Combined, they have over one-third of the state’s total. Other divisions with higher proportions include Newport News, Petersburg, and Roanoke City. The increasing number of isolated schools has also contributed to a sharp increase in the share of Black or Hispanic students who attend low-income schools in Virginia.

It is well documented that racially and economically diverse schools have positive benefits for all students. Students who attend economically diverse schools have higher test scores, are more likely to enroll in college, are more likely to develop cross-cultural friendships, and have better critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Conversely,  students attending economically segregated or isolated schools experience specific disadvantages. Schools in urban areas with higher levels of low-income and non-white students have less qualified and experienced instructors. And schools with more students of color and low-income students have much higher turnover rates for teachers, which disrupts the school environment and causes a loss of talented staff. Further, these communities also are more likely to have school facilities in dire need of repair and maintenance.

These discrepancies in school experiences, and in students’ expectations for their futures, aren’t acceptable. According to new findings from the CAP report, nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that school segregation is a somewhat important or very important issue, and 7 out of 10 Americans agree that more should be done to integrate low-and-high-poverty schools.

These discrepancies don’t have to continue. There are tools that state lawmakers and local school divisions can utilize to ensure that all Virginia children, despite their ZIP code, race, or socioeconomic status, have an opportunity to receive a high-quality education that prepares them to reach their full potential. State lawmakers can boost the At-Risk Add on Program, providing additional resources to support students from low income families in the classroom. Research shows it can cost as much as two to two-and-a-half times more to help students from families with low incomes reach similar levels of performance as students from wealthier families. Additionally, local school divisions can use controlled-choice, where parents select the public school in their division that they would like their child to attend (similar to open-enrollment) and these choices are balanced with diversity factors such as socioeconomic status. This model can be used as a pathway to increase school socioeconomic diversity, while also ensuring that parents have a say in where their children attend school.   

Addressing the historical inequalities that created racial and economic segregation in the commonwealth is not an easy task. Yet by working together and implementing programs to address economic segregation and isolation, we can alleviate some of these challenges and start to expand educational access and opportunity for all Virginia children.


Kenneth Gilliam

Back to top