The Supreme Court’s 1954 unanimous ruling on Brown v. Board of Education famously concluded that segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprives the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities. The case established that school segregation is unjust and morally wrong. Just over 10 years later, the Coleman Report revealed that socioeconomic diversity is the key to removing racial inequalities in education and established that racial and economic segregation is also counterproductive to having schools that help all children reach their potential.

Despite half a century of law, policy, and growing understanding of the moral and pragmatic justifications for eliminating segregated schools, achieving a fully-integrated public school system remains an unfinished act. In the six decades following Brown, demographic shifts, residential segregation patterns, and changing political attitudes have all affected the extent to which schools have been integrated.

This report looks specifically at trends in school segregation in North Carolina over the past 10 years. The analysis shows that during this time:

  • The number of racially and economically isolated schools has increased
  • Districts’ racial distribution is mixed, but economic segregation is on the rise
  • Large school districts could be doing much more to integrate their schools
  • School district boundaries are still used to maintain segregated school systems
  • Charter schools tend to exacerbate segregation

These trends carry important implications for state and local policymakers, particularly as the North Carolina General Assembly increasingly considers bills that would further exacerbate school segregation.


In North Carolina, school segregation remains a contentious subject. Following Brown, de-segregation was vigorously opposed by state leaders. In 1956, Governor Luther Hodges called a special session of the General Assembly to adopt a state plan in response to the Brown decision, which he described as “one of the greatest crises which North Carolina has ever experienced.” The state’s subsequent plan for opposing integration—known as the Pearsall Plan—allowed districts to shutter schools that became integrated, and provided state-funded vouchers to allow white students to flee integrated schools. The Pearsall Plan, which required a constitutional amendment, was overwhelmingly supported by North Carolina voters.

Despite voter sentiment following Brown, many leaders across the state fought courageously to integrate North Carolina’s public schools. Attorney Julius Chambers filed hundreds of desegregation lawsuits, refusing to be cowed by Klan terrorists who bombed his car and home, and also targeted the homes of NAACP leadership.

The Pearsall Plan was finally declared unconstitutional in 1969 in Godwin v. Johnston County Board of Education. In 1971, a team of NAACP lawyers led by Chambers successfully argued in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education that the district had to use student assignment and busing to integrate its schools. Subsequently, Charlotte became a national leader for school integration.

Other North Carolina districts followed suit. School district boundaries that had previously been drawn to isolate students of color in sub-standard schools were erased. In 1975, North Carolina had 35 counties with split “city” school districts. Today, just 11 counties have multiple school districts. Wake County merged its city and county school districts, and implemented school assignment policies to ensure no school had more than 40 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced lunch.

Progress was sidetracked in 2001 when the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals declared Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s racial integration plan illegal. Since then, school boards have swung back and forth in their willingness to use school assignment plans or managed public school choice to create racially and economically balanced public schools.

The new millennium has brought forth a swelling body of research supporting the benefits of school integration. Yet state leaders are increasingly sponsoring bills that would only exacerbate segregation. While most of these bills failed to pass in 2017, the General Assembly has created the Joint Legislative Study Committee on the Division of Local School Administrative Units, which many advocates fear is an attempt to begin the process of re-segregating urban school districts.


Research on school segregation and integration has reached general consensus on three points:

  • School segregation has negative impacts on low-income students and students of color.
  • School integration has positive impacts on low-income students and students of color.
  • School integration does not have negative impacts on high-income white students.

School segregation is associated with increasing racial achievement gaps, dropout rates, and incarceration rates. The negative impacts of school segregation are effectively highlighted by a 2013 Harvard study examining the impact of the re-segregation of schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The end of the integrated busing program in Charlotte led to an increase in racial achievement gaps as well as increased arrest and incarceration rates for male students of color. These results are consistent with national research that finds within-district segregation is the biggest predictor of racial achievement gaps. Additional research has shown that the end of school de-segregation orders led to increased dropout rates for Black and Hispanic students.

By contrast, there are considerable benefits associated with school integration. For instance, a study in Maryland found that students from low-income families that were randomly assigned to low-poverty schools experienced large, persistent test score gains compared to similar students assigned to high-poverty schools. Another study estimates that desegregation efforts of the 1970s decreased the dropout rates for Black students by two to three percentage points. The benefits of school integration can be quite substantial over the long-term, with one study finding that attending a desegregated school increased annual earnings by 30 percent for Black men.

None of these studies finds any negative impacts for white students. In fact, a recent federal study found that white student performance remained similar whether they went to a school that was overwhelmingly white or one that was overwhelmingly Black.

The positive impacts of school integration extend beyond test scores. Students attending integrated schools become less prejudiced, increase cross-racial trust and friendships, and enhance their capacity for working with others.

Given this body of research, one would expect policymakers to have accelerated school integration in recent years. Yet while racial segregation has remained relatively constant, several studies have observed a marked increase in student segregation by income.