February Issue • Volume 44 • Issue 2

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Using NSF Funds to Study Differences in School Desegregation in Five Southern Systems

Toby L. Parcel, North Carolina State University, Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, University of North Carolina-Charlotte, and Stephen Samuel Smith, Winthrop University

The recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reflects the widespread interest in improving education. But, one aspect of education continues to complicate reform efforts: school racial segregation. Although there was significant desegregation from approximately the mid-1960s to mid-1980s, subsequent years saw considerable resegregation, and today schools are almost as racially segregated as they were in 1954 when Brown declared racial segregation unconstitutional. However, not all communities have experienced resegregation. So, why have some districts sustained desegregation while others have resegregated? Can we tie these differing histories to the attitudes of these areas’ residents? What socioeconomic, political, and demographic dynamics are at play?

These are some of the questions we are studying in five southern school districts—Charlotte, NC; Louisville, KY; Nashville, TN; Raleigh, NC; and Rock Hill, SC—thanks to a collaborative grant comprised of three linked awards from the Sociology Program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) (Parcel, Mickelson, and Smith 2015).1 Ours is an interdisciplinary project based in sociology and political science; it also spans subfields in both disciplines.

Finding a Research Connection

Our project began with a fortuitous realization that we were each studying issues of desegregation and resegregation in the South. Mickelson and Smith had long histories analyzing (de)(re)segregation in Charlotte (Mickelson, 2001; Smith, 2004) and Rock Hill (Smith 2010). Their recent book chronicled how the interplay of actors’ agency with nested local, state, and national structures shaped Charlotte’s desegregation and subsequent resegregation (Mickelson, Smith and Nelson 2015). Parcel had just published a book reporting her study of policy change in school assignments in Raleigh, North Carolina (Parcel and Taylor, 2015). It investigated why in 2009, after years of successful, voluntary school desegregation, Raleigh’s citizens elected a school board committed to returning to neighborhood schools.

We found similarities in our approaches. All three of us had conducted mixed-method case studies of desegregation and resegregation dynamics in the South, the region whose schools were once the nation’s most racially segregated and later the most desegregated. Individually, we had made inroads into asking whether the findings for our cases were generalizable. We also had gone as far as we could without additional data collection. We wondered: Could we tie trends in (de)(re)segregation to the attitudes of area residents? And could we bring together the rich results from qualitative case studies on several locales with new quantitative studies based on survey results?

We decided to pool our expertise and make use of a survey strategy Parcel had used in her book. With support from NSF, in late 2015 we replicated the 2011 Raleigh survey to establish trends in attitudes in that locale. We also surveyed adults in Charlotte, NC; Rock Hill, SC; Louisville, KY; and Nashville, TN. We chose these five areas because they had varying school desegregation histories. Like Raleigh and Rock Hill, Louisville had sustained school desegregation for many years following the end of court-mandated desegregation. In contrast, Nashville and Charlotte have largely resegregated. Including the small Rock Hill district with four larger ones had the benefit of introducing size into our investigation.

To study these issues, we made use of cost-effective polling involving Interactive Voice Response (IRV) with landlines. We supplemented our landline survey samples with live cell phone samples and, for one locale, additional live landline interviews. We now have more than 5,300 completed phone surveys. We oversampled African Americans in both IRV and live interviews, and are currently weighting the data to compensate for response biases among respondents.

What We Want to Know

We anticipate that our project will provide important policy guidance. Indeed, policy actors in Charlotte and Raleigh have already expressed interest in our surveys’ results. Understanding more about citizens’ attitudes should help local school boards pursue progressive policies that garner widespread public support.

By comparing the 2011 Raleigh survey results with those of today, we can chart trends in attitudes towards diversity and neighborhood schools in that district. In addition, we can explore whether the factors that were critical for Raleigh citizens in 2011—concern for diversity, for neighborhood schools, and worries about the challenges and uncertainties surrounding reassignments— will be salient today in the other locales. Or, will there be different concerns, possibly in some, if not all, of the areas we study?

We also want to know what explains these concerns. Parcel and Taylor (2015) showed that women worried more about perceived policy dangers and uncertainties than did men. Blacks were more supportive of diversity than were whites, although lower-income Blacks thought diverse schools might not be worth the costs. Will these findings replicate across school districts, thus providing evidence for external validity? In addition, we will be integrating each set of survey results into their respective case studies. Triangulating these findings will provide richer pictures of the links between citizen attitudes and area social histories than we currently have.

Understanding variation in policy-relevant attitudes across our five study locations should also help us more deeply understand the dynamics of school resegregation more generally in our society.  


Mickelson, R.A. (2001). “Subverting Swann: First- and Second- Generation Segregation Charlotte, North Carolina” American Educational Research Journal, 38(2): 215-252.

Mickelson, R.A., Smith, S. S., & Nelson, Amy Hawn, Eds. (2015). Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. School Desegregation and Resegregation in Charlotte (2015). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Parcel, T.L., Mickelson, R. A., and Smith, S. S. (2015). “Collaborative Research: School Segregation and Resegregation: Using Case Studies and Public Polls to Understand Citizen Attitudes.” (NSF Awards SES-1528559, SES-1527285, SES-1527762).

Parcel, T. L., and Taylor, A.J. (2015). The End of Consensus. Diversity, Neighborhoods, and the Politics of Public School Assignments. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press.

Smith, S. S. (2004). Book for Whom? Education, Desegregation, and Development in Charlotte. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Smith, S. S. (2010). “Still Swimming Against the Resegregation Tide? A Suburban Southern School District in the Aftermath of Parents Involved.” North Carolina Law Review. 88(3): (1145-1208).


1The five school systems we are studying are roughly equivalent to the cities of Raleigh, NC (Wake County Public School System); Charlotte, NC (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools); Louisville, KY (Jefferson County Schools); Rock Hill, SC (York County District 3); and Nashville, TN (Davidson County Public Schools). In all cases, the school districts include smaller municipalities and/or unincorporated county neighborhoods. For clarity, we refer to the school districts by the name of the major city in them.

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