Public school demographics are changing: Minority students now dominate many school systems

By: - September 6, 2019 7:00 am

First grade Hispanic students raise their hands to answer a question during a class taught in Spanish. Photo by Mario Villafuerte/Getty Images.

Five years ago, educators, demographers and reporters took note of an education milestone: White students no longer would be the majority in the nation’s public schools.

Instead, other racial groups, including the burgeoning population of school-aged Hispanics, would eclipse white kids. The change occurred in 2014, federal data show, when minorities for the first time made up 50.3 percent of the country’s public schools, and white students comprised 47.7 percent.

But five years later, there’s already a new milestone, though families and taxpayers may not have noticed it:

In a handful of states, including Florida, the percent of white students has now dipped to below 40 percent, creating even broader diversity but also challenges.

Low-income minority students, for example, can face struggles with getting into rigorous classes and passing state exams, educators and other experts say. And Hispanic students may need more English-language instruction.

Diverse student populations in general impact everything from how states distribute dollars for public schools to graduation rates and even the teaching staff that has been predominantly white.

In fact, in Florida, the teaching force doesn’t match the diversity of students: Nearly 70 percent of public school teachers are white, yet only 37 percent of students in classrooms are white, according to a Phoenix analysis of 2018-19 data from the Florida Department of Education.

body of research indicates that students can benefit when they are of the same race as their teacher, including reducing the number of minority kids who are suspended or expelled. Other studies show, for example, that a greater number of black teachers connect to higher percentages of black kids in gifted programs.

The other states where white student populations have dipped below 40 percent are Arizona, Maryland, Nevada, Texas, New Mexico, California and Hawaii, according to a data from the U.S. Department of Education. The federal analysis looked at changes in the racial composition of public schools, from 2000-01 to 2016-17.

In the fall of 2000, white students made up 53.3 percent of Florida’s public school population. By the fall of 2016, the figure had declined to 38.7 percent.

The Florida Department of Education has more current numbers for 2018-19, showing that the white student population dipped to 37.4 percent.  Hispanic students made up 33.9 percent of statewide enrollment that school year, and black students made up 21.9 percent.

But the numbers are different depending on who is in attendance in the 67 school districts in Florida.

In 39 districts, white students still make up at least 50 percent of the student population. In seven counties, at least 80 percent of students are white. Those counties, mostly in the north part of Florida, are Holmes, Dixie, Gilchrist, Baker, Nassau, Wakulla and Citrus.

In 28 counties, minority students make up at least 50 percent of the student population. Those include South Florida’s massive Miami-Dade school system, where more than 70 percent of students are Hispanic, and Gadsden County in northwest Florida, where black students comprise more than 70 percent of the student body.

James Johnson Jr. is a demographer and professor in North Carolina who spoke this summer at a national forum on education policy, focusing on the changing population in America and the implications for public schools.

In his presentation, he outlined ways for the public to manage the transition to what he calls the “browning of America,” or the “immigration-driven population changes.”

That included embracing immigrants and essentially urging baby boomers to be supportive and involved even if their own kids are no longer in school. As Johnson put it in the presentation, “Convince Boomers that they do have a dog in the K-12 education fight.”

Back in 2014, when the racial shift occurred at the nation’s public schools, the publication Education Week looked closely at the demographics and concluded “That new majority will continue to grow.”

“It’s a shift that poses a plain imperative for public schools and society at large,” Education Week wrote. “ The United States must vastly improve the educational outcomes for this new and diverse majority of American students, whose success is inextricably linked to the well-being of the nation.”

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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.