Students in American public schools tend to attend schools where most of the students share their racial or ethnic background. While this trend has changed somewhat over the past two decades, it remains especially true for white college students, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Department of Education data.
In the 2018-2019 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, 79% of white students in public primary and secondary schools attended schools where at least half of their peers were also white. That year, more than half of Hispanic students (56%) and 42% of Black students also attended schools where half or more of the students shared their race or ethnicity. This includes those who attend traditional public schools and public charter schools.
In order to assess the level of racial and ethnic diversity in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide, this analysis uses federal data to study the state of these schools today and how they have changed over time.
The analysis draws on more than two decades of surveys and demographic data from the US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), including the Public Elementary / Secondary School Universe Survey. and the Common Core of Data.
The analysis uses US public school data for the 2018-19 school year, the most recent data available. It excludes private schools. Public schools include charters, with the exception of the state-level analysis, where traditional public schools and charters are broken down separately.
Data was not available for some states due to low response rates or data collection standards not met.
Whites, Blacks, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans or Alaska Natives in this analysis are those who identify as one race and are not Hispanic. Hispanics are of all races. Due to methodological changes, earlier NCES data does not include a category for two or more races, and Asian Americans are grouped together with Pacific Islanders.
These differences by race and ethnicity do not reflect the demographics of public schools across the country as a whole: White students make up 47% of students (this figure has declined from 65% in 1995), while 27% are Hispanic and 15% are black.
Other racial and ethnic groups make up relatively smaller proportions of students, and they are much more likely to attend a school where the majority of their peers are of a different race or ethnicity from their own. For Asian Americans – who make up about 5% of all public school students – 86% attend a school where less than half of their classmates are Asian, and more than a third (36%) attend a school where less than 10% are Asian American. Among Pacific Islanders and Native Americans or Alaska Natives, who each make up 1% or less of all American students, these shares are even higher.
Demographic change over time
Over the past 25 years or so, white and black students in public schools have become somewhat less likely to attend schools where most other students share their race.
About nine in ten white students (91%) attended a school where half or more of their classmates shared their race in 1995-96, a share that fell to 79% for the 2018-19 school year. Among black students, the share who attended a school where more than half of the students were also black increased from 51% in 1995 to 42% in 2018-19. During the same period, Hispanic students became slightly Following likely to attend a school where at least half of their peers share their ethnicity, going from 53% in 1995-96 to 56% in 2018-19.
The share of white public school students attending schools where the vast majority of their peers are white has also declined over the past quarter century. In 1995, about half of white students (49%) attended schools where at least 90% of the students were also white. In 2018, this was the case for only 18% of white students. The share of black students attending schools where at least 90% of their classmates shared their racial background also declined, from 22% in 1995 to 13% in 2018. The percentage of Hispanic students attending schools or across the country minus 90% of students are Hispanic is about the same as in 1995 – 15% that year, up from 16% in 2018-19.
These long-term changes in enrollment are in part the result of the changing racial and ethnic makeup of the United States and, therefore, of its public schools.
Hispanic students make up more than a quarter (27%) of students enrolled in public schools – a share that has roughly doubled since 1995, when they represented 14% of all students. As the proportion of Hispanic students increased, the proportion of Black students declined slightly, from about 17% in the 1995-96 school year to 15% in 2018-19.
Racial and ethnic composition of schools by state
In the 2018-19 school year, white students made up 48% of enrollment in traditional U.S. public schools (excluding charter schools and private schools), accounting for that or more share of students in 34 states. . In all but seven states and the District of Columbia, they make up the largest racial or ethnic group in public schools in each state. Hispanic students make up the largest racial or ethnic group in New Mexico (62%), California (55%), Texas (52%), Arizona (47%), and Nevada (44%). Black students represent the highest share in DC (59%) and Mississippi (48%). In Hawaii, Asian Americans make up the largest share of students (29%).
Even in states with relatively more diverse public school populations, children tend to attend schools where their classmates share their racial or ethnic background. In Mississippi, for example, public school students are roughly evenly split between black (48%) and white (44%) students. In half of the state’s public schools, however, more than 50 percent of students are black, and in four out of ten schools, more than half of students are white.
In Maryland – where 37% of students are white, 32% are black, and 18% are Hispanic – more than a third of the state’s schools (36%) have a population that is more than half white, and in 28% of schools, more than half of students are black. In 7% of the state’s schools, more than half of the students are Hispanic.
The model is different for charter schools, which tend to have different racial and ethnic makeup than traditional public schools. Hispanic students make up about a third (34%) of elementary and secondary charter school students, with white students making up 31% and black students a quarter. In 30 of the 44 states for which there is data (including DC), white students make up less than half of the students enrolled in charter schools.
Note: This is an update of an article published on October 25, 2017.