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Building diverse schools

Study finds reassignment program caused no harm for students
Illustration of interlocking hands of different colors

We’ve divided our schools again.

The Edge: American schools remain racially segregated. Legal challenges to race-based school integration efforts have led school districts to use other methods for making student assignments while seeking to create diverse student populations within their schools. But does moving students among schools hurt their academic progress? A team led by Thurston “Thad” Domina, the Robert Wendell Eaves Sr. Distinguished Professor in Educational Leadership, examined a ten-year-long student assignment program in North Carolina and found that students did not suffer academically from being moved to different schools.

Today — nearly 70 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling declaring “separate but equal” schooling unconstitutional — half of all students attend schools in which three-quarters of their classmates are of the same race.

Does it matter?

Research has shown that yes, it does matter. Students of all races — and especially students of color — benefit academically and socially from learning in classrooms with peers of different racial backgrounds, many studies have shown. Also, students of color typically attend lower-resourced schools and have less-effective teachers, resulting in persistent achievement and opportunity gaps when compared to students attending majority White schools.

Often facing court-ordered mandates, school system administrators and policymakers made attempts to integrate schools, beginning in earnest in the 1970s. They met resistance along the way. Frequently, advantaged families feared “mandatory busing” — and other assignment programs seeking to balance the racial makeup of schools — would harm their children.

Does busing, and other programs to balance student populations, harm any students?

Thurston “Thad” Domina, Ph.D., the Robert Wendell Eaves Sr. Distinguished Professor in Educational Leadership at the UNC School of Education, set out to study that question. He and his team found evidence that assignment systems aiming to create more diverse school environments can achieve those goals without impeding the educational progress of students, including the children of White families.

Questions of education and inequality

Domina has pursued a research agenda documenting educational inequalities while also seeking to identify and develop educational policies and strategies that help create more just, equitable, and inclusive learning environments. He has devoted a focus on understanding the relationship between education and social inequality in the U.S.

Domina put together a team that examined data around a school reassignment program implemented in North Carolina’s Wake County, home of the capital city, Raleigh, and surrounding suburbs. The team — designed to operate as a research-practice partnership with the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) — included two researchers with experience working within Wake County schools. They set out to study what effects the reassignment program had on students’ experiences and their academic achievement.

The team included James Carter III, a Ph.D. candidate at the UNC School of Education who worked as a research analyst for WCPSS during the project, and Matthew Lenard, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University who previously worked as director of data strategy and analytics for WCPSS. Additional researchers were Deven Carlson, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma; Andrew McEachin, director of Collaborative for Student Growth at the Northwest Evaluation Association; and, Rachel Perera, a doctoral fellow at RAND Corporation.

The paper derived from their study — “Kids on the Bus: The Academic Consequences of Diversity-Driven School Reassignments” — received the Raymond Vernon Memorial Award from the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management. The award recognizes excellence in research by annually selecting a paper published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

How to reach diversity?

North Carolina has served as an epicenter of the legal landscape around efforts to desegregate schools.

In 1969, Judge James McMillan issued a ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education that the school system had failed to desegregate, saying it was not enough to assign students to neighborhood schools when the neighborhoods had remained segregated. He ordered a system of busing to create racial balance in schools across the county, an order upheld in a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971.

But the legal fight continued, culminating in Capacchione v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in 1999 in which Judge Robert Potter ruled schools had met federal desegregation requirements and school officials could not use race as a factor in student assignment plans. Higher courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, turned down appeals of Potter’s order, effectively barring the use of race in making school assignments.

Since then, school systems across the country have worked to establish school assignment plans that create diversity within schools using factors such as socioeconomic status and prior academic achievement.

Moving to achieve socioeconomic diversity

WCPSS established such a system, putting it in place in 2000 and using it for ten years in an effort to balance the makeup of schools. The program operated during a period in which Wake County experienced the fourth-fastest population growth in the country. Among large school districts nationwide, Wake County’s enrollment growth was the second-fastest.

As part of the reassignment program, WCPSS set goals that no school’s enrollment would exceed 40% socioeconomically disadvantaged students, or 25% of below grade-level students.

Components of the assignment program:

    • • The district was divided into geographic nodes containing roughly 150 students each, who were assigned to a default “base” elementary, middle, or high school.


    • • Through a “controlled choice” system, parents were allowed to opt out of reassignments to new “base” schools. However, most reassigned students attended their reassigned schools.


    • • Families could also choose to send their children to magnet or year-round schools rather than remain at their assigned school. To help promote desegregation goals, magnet schools were often located in higher-poverty areas of the county.


    • To maintain socioeconomic and achievement balance, each year WCPSS reassigned students within several nodes to different base schools, typically reassigning relatively high-poverty nodes to lower-poverty base schools, or vice versa.

During the decade in which the program operated, approximately 25% of K-12 students experienced one or more reassignments.

The bottom line, Domina said, is the results suggested policymakers and school system leaders who want to pursue programs to achieve racial and socioeconomic balance in their schools can do so without causing harm among students.

Through the program, most district schools saw only modestly changed socioeconomic and racial composition. But some of the district’s most segregated schools were more fully integrated.

Wake County’s socioeconomically based desegregation program ended after a 2009 election in which voters elected a slate of school board candidates that had campaigned against the reassignment policy.

What happened to the kids?

Did any of the children suffer academically or socially?


Thurston Domina, Deven Carlson, James S. Carter III, Matthew A. Lenard, Andrew McEachin, and Rachel Perera. 2021. “The Kids on the Bus: The Academic Consequences of Diversity-Driven School Reassignments.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

No, Domina and his team found.

The team examined data describing academic performance, suspensions, and absenteeism among all students in Wake County schools during the period of the assignment program. They were able to examine the experiences of students who never moved from their base schools and students who were reassigned to other schools. They were also able to compare outcomes of students who were in schools who received reassigned classmates, and those of “left behind” students who saw some of their classmates reassigned to other schools.

In all, the study found modest positive, but compounding over time, effects on reassigned students’ math achievement, in the range of 0.02-0.04 standard deviations. Reassigned students’ reading scores declined significantly in the year of reassignment but rebounded in subsequent years.

The study found no measurable effects on chronic absenteeism, an effect that counters frequently stated concerns about school reassignment on students’ experiences, the authors said.

Reassigned students saw a decline in suspension rates of 0.7 percentage points in the year of reassignment and remained depressed in the subsequent year, the study found. While those effects are small in absolute terms, they represent an approximately 20% decline from the sample’s conditional mean suspension rate. Additional analysis by race and ethnicity found this protective effect of reassignment held exclusively for Black and Latino students, an important finding given interest in ameliorating disparities in racial discipline patterns.

“Prior research is clear: Diverse schools are better for kids and better for society. The question is, how do we achieve diverse schools?”
Thurston Domina

The study also found students who did and did not attend their base school had similar outcomes following reassignment, suggesting students benefited from the reassignment program whether they moved to a new school or stayed at their base school.

The bottom line, Domina said, is the results suggested policymakers and school system leaders who want to pursue programs to achieve racial and socioeconomic balance in their schools can do so without causing harm among students.

“Prior research is clear: Diverse schools are better for kids and better for society. The question is, how do we achieve diverse schools?” Domina said. “Wake County did it in a smart way. It reassigned students from across the district, and used a light touch, using reassignment and school choice options to give families nudges that helped build more diverse schools.”

The “Kids on the Bus” paper concludes this way:

“… [W]e hope our findings provide encouragement for policymakers — in WCPSS and elsewhere — who are interested in finding new ways to pursue diversity in contemporary public schools. In our view, reassignment is a crucial tool for pursuing that worthwhile goal, a view buttressed by our findings that policymakers can reassign students without causing educational harm.

“Furthermore, we believe our findings may understate the social benefits of WCPSS’s 2000-2010 reassignment policy since they only begin to capture the wide range of ways in which reassignment — and desegregation more broadly — might influence student experiences. Perhaps most notably, our results do not account for social benefits that all students encounter as they navigate more diverse learning environments.

“As such, we believe that WCPSS’s reassignment policy provides an important model for school desegregation efforts in the contemporary context.”


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