Recent Duke research shows grim consequences could accompany intensifying economic disparity in North Carolina’s public schools.
According to a study conducted by the Sanford School of Public Policy, the economic imbalance in North Carolina’s schools is rising, even as racial inequity and de facto segregation have begun to level off after years of growth. Both types of disparity, however, prove detrimental to the educational experience, negatively affecting quality and creating disparate curriculums in the state. “The biggest concern that you have is that schools serving disadvantaged kids have difficulty recruiting and retaining great teachers,” said study co-author Jacob Vigdor, professor of public policy and economics.
The study found that schools with high proportions of non-white or low-income students are more likely to have teachers with fewer years of experience and lower scores on teaching exams, and less likely to employ teachers who are National Board certified or graduates of competitive colleges. An additional weakness of economically and racially unequal schools stems from the social environment, said co-author Charles Clotfelter, Z. Smith Reynolds professor of public policy.
“Someone who is in a school that is drastically different from the norm will have an experience that is separate from that of most people their age.... They’ll be isolated from the mainstream,” Clotfelter said.
To quantify disparity, the study’s authors used a figure called the imbalance index, which compares the racial and economic composition of a county’s schools to the demographic makeup of the county’s population as a whole. In 2011, the state’s economic imbalance index was 0.18, meaning that the interaction between students of different economic levels is 18 percent less than it would be if schools were perfectly balanced by income. In comparison, this figure was 0.15 in 2005-2006 and 0.11 in 1994-1995.
The white/non-white imbalance was 0.16, exactly the same as it was in 2005-2006 and only 0.01 higher than it was in 2000-2001. Nevertheless, there are a variety of issues facing the racial composition of North Carolina’s schools, the researchers said.
The study found that charter schools are a particular area for concern, with 60 percent of students attending a school with minority enrollment of either under 20 percent or over 80 percent.
“We should be very cautious with charter schools going forward,” said co-author Helen Ladd, Edgar F. Thompson distinguished professor of public policy. “Students in charter schools tend to be in school with kids like themselves.... That pattern is almost inevitable because of underlying presences.”
The study also found that the population of Hispanic students has risen dramatically over the past 10 years, adding another facet to North Carolina’s historically binary discussion of race.
“Historically in the South, the race issue was always a white and black one,” Clotfelter said. “Hispanics have changed that environment.”
The study reported that as a likely result of this change in demographics, the proportion of students attending schools that are more than 90 percent white decreased by more than half from 2005-2006 to 2011-2012.
The report found that Durham County had the eighth-highest economic imbalance index, with 0.29, and was just outside the top 10 of racial imbalance, with an index score of 0.21.
However, these figures are slightly misleading, said Heidi Carter, chair of Durham Public Schools’ Board of Education.
“[The imbalance indices] measure the degree to which the composition of schools in Durham match the county as a whole, but our school system demographics do not mirror Durham [County’s],” Carter said.
She noted that 25 percent of Durham County’s school age children attend either charter or private schools, making it impossible for the public schools to reflect the racial and economic balance of the entire county. She added that the percentage of white middle class students has particularly fallen since 2005, saying that the decrease was partially due to an increase of charter schools in the area.
“We embrace the children that come to us with open arms, but we would much prefer that the demographics of our school system reflect the community,” she said. “That sort of balance gives students a chance to understand our common humanity.”
The study was purposefully released just before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in an effort to increase awareness of the inequality that still exists in modern America, Ladd said.
“Martin Luther King’s birthday reminds us that racial and economic disparities have historically played a negative role in our country,” Ladd said. “We must keep that in mind as we move forward in working to ensure that all children receive a high-quality education.”