DC: Our Segregated Capital An Increasingly Diverse City with Racially Polarized Schools
Washington was one of the first districts ordered to desegregate by the Supreme Court in
l954 when segregation by law was ruled unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of
Education. The DC plan that was implemented was not busing or other mandatory
desegregation but neighborhood schools, and the city had almost completely resegregated
before the busing issue arose elsewhere in the l970s. For decades the city became more
and more African American and the school system had only a handful of white students.
Since 1980, however, the white population of Washington has climbed considerably, and
the black population has dropped sharply because of the exodus of the black middle class,
so there no longer is a black majority in DC. From 1980 to 2010 the city’s black
population fell 31% while the white population grew 35% and the Latino population
soared 210% from a small base. Shortly afterwards the city reached a non-black majority
for the first time in more than a half century.
The highly diverse population has not been reflected substantially in school enrollment.
The schools are much more segregated than the city or the metro area. Residential
segregation remains high in the city but isolation in schools is substantially greater. In
other words, many people who live in diverse communities are sending their children to
The District of Columbia enrolls only about one-twelfth of the students in its huge
metropolitan area and it has two school systems: District of Columbia Public Schools
(called public schools, in this report) and District of Columbia Public Charter School
Board, which is not a system but a collection of widely varying publicly funded schools
independently run by non-public bodies (called charter schools). During the 2013-2014
school year the public schools served 43,307 students and the charters 32,416 students.
Both had large black majorities, but the public schools had more diversity with two-thirds
(67% ) blacks, one sixth (17%) Latinos, 13% whites, and 2% Asians. In contrast, African
American and Latino students comprised 93% of the total charter enrollment where the
combined whites and Asian students were slightly more than 5%.
The District of Columbia’s total enrollment in public and charter schools dropped less
than 3% from 1992 to 2013, but there was a major redistribution to the charter school
sector. In 2013 total enrollment was close to 76,000. The African American share of the
total school enrollment declined from 89% to 73% between 1992 and 2013. The
percentage of white students doubled over the last two decades from 4% to 9%. The
Latino proportion also increased by 8.7 percentage points, and one seventh of students in
DC were Latino in 2013. The Asian share remained unchanged as Asian numbers soared
in the suburbs.
Since the charter school movement started in DC in l996 the District’s private school
enrollment has plummeted in spite of tuition vouchers, except for white students whose
private enrollment is basically unchanged. Many students of color left private schools for
charter schools, sometimes the same school converted to a charter. The city also has a
small voucher program which helps pay the cost of participating private schools for a few
thousand students from low income families.
The charter schools overall have a less diverse and more segregated enrollment than the
public schools. Though they are much newer and developed in a period of rapidly
increasing diversity in the city, they have attracted few whites and Asians.
Black students are by far the most segregated group in the city and the region by race and
poverty. The historic extreme segregation of the public schools has modestly diminished
while the much newer charters have an even higher level of racial separation.
There has been some gradual and modest progress in reducing segregation. The overall
share of African American and Latino students who attended intensely segregated
schools (90-100% nonwhite schools) and apartheid schools (99-100% nonwhite schools)
decreased between 1992 and 2013 but remained very high. For African American
students, nearly 90% of Washington black students went to apartheid schools in 1992, but
the percentage dropped to 71% in 2013.
Schools segregated by race and class have, on average, clearly weaker educational
In 2013, the combined share of whites and Asians was approximately 10% in the District
of Columbia public schools, but these students, on average, attended schools where
nearly half of their classmates were white and Asian. In contrast, the combined share of
African American, Latino, and Native American students were 88% in 2013, but 93% of
the classmates of these students came from the same groups. The region’s growing Latino
enrollment is largely outside the District.
Latino students are a relatively small sector in the city and are significantly less
segregated in the city than black students and far less segregated than Latinos are at a
The patterns of intense double segregation are by poverty as well as race. Racial
segregation is strongly related to segregation by concentrated poverty, and this double
segregation is strongly related to the highly unequal educational outcomes. There are
very intense economic and educational gaps by race in DC.
Students from poor families comprise 67% and 57% of black and Latino students’
classmates, respectively, in 2013 while white students in DC had less than one-fourth
poor classmates in their schools in the same year.
In Washington gentrification often involves predominantly white home buyers moving
into what had been an historic African American area creating diverse neighborhoods at
least for some time as the process unfolds. Gentrification as well as massive black
suburbanization have played a major role in changing the share of black and white
In comparing public and charter schools of the District of Columbia, double segregation –
segregation by race and poverty -- was higher in the charter schools where nearly threefourths
of the students were low income, and black and Latino students had far more poor
classmates than did their Asian and white counterparts. In public schools more than half
of students were poor, and black and Latino students tended to attend schools with a far
higher percentage of low-income classmates than white students. The percent of black
students in a school was highly correlated with the proportion of students living in
poverty. There was no significant relationship between the Latino share and the
proportion of low-income students, a very different pattern than is found in New York,
Chicago, Los Angeles and many cities with larger shares of Latino students.
The report examines both the whole vast metropolitan area and the immediate metro
regions comprising DC and the Montgomery, Prince George’s County, Alexandria,
Arlington, and Fairfax districts. Except the Prince George’s district, the other districts
differed remarkably from Washington DC in terms of student demographics with
substantially more white and Asian students. In the Arlington and Fairfax districts, in
particular, more than half of the total enrollments were from white and Asian groups. All
districts, however, showed significant patterns of school segregation.
There is no evidence that these patterns are self-curing. They are extending into large
sectors of suburbia, and the opportunities for diverse schools in the city are not being
Washington is not the most segregated district in the metro region for black students.
The segregation of the large suburban Prince George’s County is even more severe.
Prince George’s was one of the nation’s first large suburban districts to experience
massive resegregation. (Our previous statewide studies of Maryland and Virginia schools
can be found at civilrightsproject.ucla.edu)
The relatively small Alexandria district showed positive potential by enrolling a balanced
number of each racial group: whites (27%), blacks (33%), and Latinos (32%). The
segregation level in the district was the lowest among the six immediate metro districts.
This report analyzes the magnitude and trend of racial segregation and its education
consequence among schools in the District of Columbia. The report draws on data
sources from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the Office of the
State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). The principal data sources are the Public
Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey Data of 1992, 2002, and 2012 (NCES),
the Washington DC’s Comprehensive Assessment Results of 2013 (OSSE), and the
Equity Report Data of 2013 (OSSE). These are all public data sets available for
independent analysis by other groups or interested residents.
This report is organized as follows. The first section reviews the social and historical
background and context of the District of Columbia. The second section analyzes
NCES’s Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey Data to examine racial and ethnic changes in the nation, Border States, and Washington DC between 1992 and
2013. The third section, based on data sources from NCES as well as OSSE, explores
Washington DC’s public schools and public charter schools that comprise the two
systems of the District of Columbia in order to investigate overall racial and ethnic
changes and relationships between racial segregation and academic achievement. The
final data section concerns metropolitan areas that surround the District of Columbia to
understand school segregation patterns in DC in a larger geographical and sociopolitical
The report ends with the conclusions we draw from the data and a set of
recommendations for voluntary action about ways to begin to reverse these patterns based
on research and experience in communities across the U.S.