How Your School May Affect Your Politics

A new study suggests a link between educational diversity and party preference

This TMI report is written by journalist Andrew Perez.

In the neverending nature-versus-nurture debates, there’s plenty of evidence that your childhood education experience can shape the rest of your life in myriad ways. A new study suggests it can even shape your political views, depending on the racial composition of your local school.

The new study by researchers at the University of Colorado, Dartmouth and Carnegie Mellon found that “a 10-percentage point increase in the share of minorities in a white student's assigned school decreased their likelihood of being...registered as a Republican by 12 percent.” 

The analysis was based on data from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools -- a school district that was at the center of an historic Supreme Court ruling upholding busing programs and that became a model of successful integration. That is, before the district wrote new boundaries and stopped its busing program.

In 1954, after the Supreme Court declared in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in schools is unconstitutional, North Carolina issued a report insisting that integrating public schools "cannot be accomplished and should not be attempted,” and the legislature empowered local school boards to continue segregating schools. 

Three years later, a 15-year-old student, Dorothy Counts, made national news when she was the first student to integrate in an all-white high school in Charlotte, surrounded by an angry, violent mob -- a scene documented in an iconic New York Times photo

In 1971, a Supreme Court decision involving the same school district, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, finally started the process of actively desegregating school districts across the country, and made Charlotte the national leader in integration for 30 years. 

That all came to a crashing halt in the early 2000s, when the Supreme Court allowed a federal judge to end federal supervision of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, killing its busing program. In 2018, a report by North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project found that the school district is now “by far the most racially segregated district in the state.” The group noted that “charter schools have contributed to increasing racial segregation.”

That same year, Republicans in the North Carolina legislature passed a bill offering a national model for resegregation, empowering wealthy white school districts to create their own publicly funded, privately administered charter schools. Officials from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district have pushed for its repeal.

The shift in the district fits into a national trend: In the last 30 years, the number of racially segregated schools has more than tripled, and more than a third of all African American and Latino students attend a school where 90 percent of their peers are non-white. 

Within the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, NBER researchers found that resegregation had a significant effect on students’ political beliefs. “This article provides evidence that a key shock to the social lives of youth -- a shift in the racial composition of their schools -- caused changes in their long-run political identities,” they write.

“Hundreds of school districts were released from court-ordered desegregation during the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, a policy shift that has led to the gradual re-segregation of these districts,” the researchers write. “In addition to the adverse effects of school segregation on economic outcomes, our estimates suggest that these policy changes could have led to important shifts in the partisan identities of Americans.”


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