Academic journal article The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice

Public School Segregation and Social Capital

Academic journal article The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice

Public School Segregation and Social Capital

Article excerpt


During the past thirty years, public schools in the United States have become increasingly segregated by race and socioeconomic status.1 The promise of equal education for all as illustrated in Brown v. Board of Education2 has quietly slipped away, replaced by gradually more segregated public schools and a trend toward legal colorblindness in student assignment.3 The current emphasis on academic outcomes, or test scores,4 leads citizens and educators alike to ask whether racial integration is necessary - must students be sitting next to ethnically and racially different students in order to learn? The answer to that question depends on the purpose of public education. Research examining the effect of segregation on test scores is mixed.5 However, if public education encompasses larger goals, such as developing a civil society and social capital, then indeed, the peer environment in public schools should be a major consideration of education policy.6

In this paper, I bring new evidence to bear on the questions of whether segregated schooling, in fact, may influence the individual social capital of students who experience it and whether segregated schooling is correlated with the social capital of the surrounding community. First, I will examine the goals of public education. Second, I will discuss the theory and research surrounding social capital. Third, using data from five southern school districts and matching data from the 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey (SCCBS),7 I will examine the relationship between community social capital and segregated public schools. Finally, I will conclude by speculating about the potential effect of resegregating public schools on both community and individual social capital.


The first step in evaluating any public policy is to consider the policy's mission, goals, and objectives. Education policy researchers often skip this step, either assuming universal agreement that increased academic test scores are the sole goal of public education, or avoiding the discussion due to space or time constraints, with some noted exceptions.8 Two statements of public education goals suggest the potential for broad categories that could be incorporated into a conceptual model.

First, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act9 included, among goals on school readiness, school completion, teacher readiness, and parental participation, a goal for student achievement and citizenship:

By the year 2000, all students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography, and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our Nation's modern economy.10

In addition to the commonly accepted goal of academic competency, this goal statement includes civics education, preparation for responsible citizenship, and preparation for productive employment. Other goals include "learning to use their minds well" and "preparing] for ... further learning." A 1990 summary of industrial psychology and business research prepared for the United States Department of Labor included many of these "soft skills," such as oral and written communication, working in diverse groups, taking initiative, and problem solving as necessary job skills to participate in the labor market.11

These relatively recent lists of public education goals, desired job skills, and their impact concurs with a historical list that Thomas Jefferson gave to the commissioners of the University of Virginia in 1818.12 Jefferson's goals for public education were: (1) to give to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business; (2) to enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts, in writing; (3) to improve, by reading, his morals and faculties; (4) to understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either; (5) to know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains; (6) to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor, and judgment; (7) and, in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed. …

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