Public education is an issue that strikes at the heart of the American psyche. Nine out of ten students attend public schools in the United States, and their experiences there shape their lives well into adulthood. For parents, the decisions of where to live and where to send their child to school are among the most important that a family can make. Simply put, Americans of all backgrounds have strong, intimate, and deeply held feelings about public education—and those views vary (a lot).

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust education into the center of public debate, all while raising people’s awareness of just how critical schools are to the well-being of students, families, and society writ large. The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the deep disparities in our education system, which are driven in part by unequal access to technology, broadband, child care, and more. Black, Brown, and low-income students were already at a disadvantage before the pandemic; now, they are at risk of falling even further behind due to disruptions in their learning.

The Century Foundation has worked for years to foster a public school system that gives every student in the country the chance to achieve educational excellence and lead fulfilling lives. At the core of this work is advancing school integration. Despite overwhelming evidence that integrated schools are better for all students, far too many American children attend schools apart from their peers of different social, economic, and racial backgrounds. Sixty-six years after Brown v. Board of Education, Black and Latinx students across the nation are still disproportionately confined to racially and economically segregated, underfunded schools.

Schools reopening and students returning to the classroom are only the start of our nation’s education recovery. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever that we invest in high-quality, equitable learning opportunities for all students. To achieve that goal, we must first address our nation’s highly segregated school system.

Building Support for Integration

Building public support and political will is critical to advancing the cause of school integration, in part because attempts to desegregate frequently require changing the composition and student make-up of our schools themselves, for instance by redrawing district boundaries or changing enrollment policies. For decades, opponents of integration have derided efforts to integrate schools as government-sponsored “social engineering,” along the way convincing many families that the costs of integrating (however negligible they may be) are too high. Not enough has been done to refute these charges and instead communicate the costs of inaction—in other words, to show the American public the price we all pay as a result of our system’s segregated status quo.

In 2020, The Century Foundation launched The Bridges Collaborative, a first-of-its-kind school integration initiative that serves as a nationwide hub for more than fifty school districts, charter schools, and housing organizations committed to integration. Over the last year, the collaborative has partnered with a leading public opinion and research firm, Topos Partnership, on an ambitious project to assess Americans’ views on school integration and develop an empirically grounded framework for talking about and building support for integration. We used a variety of sophisticated research methods to understand the deep, cultural underpinnings that people bring to the issue of school integration, including cognitive elicitations,1 “TalkBack” testing,2 and a national survey of 1,100 adults with oversamples of Black and Hispanic respondents, conducted in January 2021 (see the full methodology section below). In this commentary, we summarize some of the most instructive lessons from our research.

Americans Are Giving Schools Better Grades

One of the first findings from the research was that Americans seem to be feeling more warmly toward public schools these days. Whether a renewed appreciation for the work schools do as a result of the pandemic, or the beginning of a longer-term trend, there is a noticeable increase in the percentage of Americans giving the nation’s schools a grade of “A” or “B.” Specifically, positive ratings of public schools in the nation as a whole increased by 74 percent since 2019, while positive ratings of the schools in a respondent’s own community increased by 18 percent since 2019.3

Figure 1

Americans Support Diverse and Integrated Schools

Broadly speaking, people like the idea of diverse and integrated schools. When asked, “How important is it to you that the public schools in your community have a mix of students from different racial/ethnic backgrounds?” 84 percent of respondents said it was somewhat, very, or extremely important to them, while only 16 percent indicated that it was not so important or not important at all.

Figure 2

Similarly, when asked, “How important is it to you that the public schools in your community have a mix of students from different economic backgrounds?” 83 percent of respondents said it was important to them, while only 16 percent said that it wasn’t important.4

Figure 3

For certain constituencies, school diversity is especially important. And, interestingly, these communities rate both racial and economic diversity at similar levels. Groups that rated diversity as “extremely important” or “very important” include: Democrats (72 percent racial, 73 percent economic), Black respondents (72 percent, 70 percent), people living in cities (72 percent, 71 percent), younger men5 (64 percent, 64 percent), and younger women (68 percent, 69 percent).

Table 1

How important is it that the public schools in your community have a mix of students from different racial/ethnic and economic backgrounds?

Racial Economic
Average 55% 55%
Democrats 72% 73%
Very diverse area 72% 73%
Black respondents 72% 70%
City 72% 71%
High school education or less 60% 60%
Younger men 64% 64%
Younger women 68% 69%
Note: Totals include respondents who rated racial and economic diversity as “extremely” or “very” important.

Lastly, all else being equal, people prefer racially diverse schools over schools with a homogeneous student body. Both those with and without children under 18 years old prefer a racially diverse school (42 percent and 42 percent, respectively) over a school with students of the same race (27 percent and 20 percent, respectively).

Figure 4

Making the Integration Argument

The strong support for school integration seen in the polling echoes a slow but growing upward trend in the number of schools taking active steps to integrate and diversify their student bodies. TCF’s research has identified more than 900 school districts and charter schools across the country with integration policies or legal instruments that address segregation. Approximately one-quarter of districts and charter schools with integration policies implemented those policies within the last four years (2017 or later).

At the same time, our public opinion research also sheds light on the obstacles to integration—or why we haven’t made more progress sooner—and offers lessons for overcoming such barriers. Evidence shows that while people start from the idea of supporting school integration, when they are asked about taking proactive (and, often, personal) steps to reduce school segregation, their views are more mixed. Moreover, when people hear some of the more prominent arguments against integration, such as that it will lead to “quotas” or that academic rigor will suffer, support for integration can easily erode.

For example, when survey respondents were pushed to consider sacrifice, in this case a longer commute, their aggregate preference for a racially diverse school dropped significantly, from 42 percent to 17 percent for those without children under 18, and from 42 percent to 25 percent for those with children under 18, with many respondents shifting their view to “it depends.”

Figure 5

This finding points to a seemingly obvious yet foundational challenge to advancing the conversation on school integration: If people think—or are led to think—that reducing segregation will come at a (broadly defined) cost to students, they are much less likely to support taking steps to integrate. This “cost to the student” trap is the biggest deal breaker for people as they think about school integration.

The trap effectively amounts to a default lens—a cognitive filter of sorts—that parents and others bring to the issue of school reform. They look at the potential impact(s) on students, and especially their own children, and ask: “What will reform mean for students?” If integration interventions are judged to come at a “cost” to students in any way, support quickly and rather steeply drops.

This trap exists even when people acknowledge the very important benefits that integration brings, such as the payoff in terms of greater social harmony, the potential to improve the lives of students living in concentrated poverty, and the benefits of experience with people from all walks of life. Parents actively resist being asked to do anything that detracts from a child’s life chances, even if it comes at the expense of larger benefits for society.

These perceived costs are expressed in a number of ways. Parents express concerns that integration will result in increased travel time; kids being uprooted from their local community; students’ academic success being threatened; and students experiencing greater anxiety and social isolation, or being subject to increased bullying, conflict, violence, and/or racism.

Without a clear and cogent response to the “cost to students” trap, building support for school integration will face an uphill battle. Fortunately, we have an answer—one that is both empirically true and, as our research makes clear, can persuade people to support integration.

Without a clear and cogent response to the “cost to students” trap, building support for school integration will face an uphill battle. Fortunately, we have an answer—one that is both empirically true and, as our research makes clear, can persuade people to support integration.

Toward a Student Benefit Frame

There is ample research demonstrating the proven benefits—for all students—from attending racially and socioeconomically integrated schools and classrooms. On average, students in socioeconomically and racially diverse schools, regardless of a student’s own economic status, have stronger academic outcomes than students in schools with concentrated poverty. They have higher test scores, are more likely to enroll in college, and are less likely to drop out. Integrated schools help to reduce racial achievement gaps and encourage critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity.

Further, attending a diverse school also helps reduce racial bias and counter stereotypes, and makes students more likely to seek out integrated settings later in life. Integrated schools encourage relationships and friendships across group lines and prepare students to succeed in an increasingly diverse society and global economy. Integrated classrooms can also improve students’ satisfaction and intellectual self-confidence, as well as enhance their leadership skills. Lastly, research has found that children who attend integrated schools had higher earnings as adults, had improved health outcomes, and were less likely to be incarcerated, among other benefits.

Not only are there numerous demonstrated benefits from integrated schools: many of the most commonly perceived “costs” of integration are also greatly exaggerated, if not rare or altogether fictional. Take, as just one example, the constant reference to “busing” when discussing integration, a racially coded term often used over the years by white protesters who oppose desegregation. While concerns over student commute times are real and valid, the discussion around “busing” paints a misleading portrait of both the causes of school segregation and the nature of viable solutions to promote integration.

To focus the conversation around school integration on “busing” is to assume that integration in most or all cases requires longer commutes for students than they would otherwise have. But that’s simply not the case. In many cities across the country, gerrymandered school attendance zones more often than not actually create higher levels of segregation than if all children attended the school closest to their house. In other words, undoing these segregative district and school boundaries results in opportunities to integrate schools without significant increases in students’ travel times.

Our research shows that an effective message that frames school integration as benefiting students can increase public support for integration measures—even in the face of strong opposing arguments.

When considering the many benefits of diverse schools and the overstated costs associated with integration, it becomes clear that the “cost to students” trap has many holes and can be overcome. In fact, our research shows that an effective message that frames school integration as benefiting students can increase public support for integration measures—even in the face of strong opposing arguments.

In our survey of 1,100 adults, we included an experiment in which all participants were asked the following (neutral) question to assess their support for school integration:

Recently some people have been talking about making more of an effort to increase racial and socioeconomic diversity in public schools while other people say that’s not necessary. Steps to increase diversity could include things like magnet schools (schools with a specialized focus such as science, language, or arts), adjusting school district boundaries and enrollment practices, teaching more about culture and diversity in class, and so on. Which is closer to your view?

Participants were then asked to rate their preference on a scale of 1 to 10, as follows:

(1) We should take steps to increase racial and socioeconomic diversity in schools
(10) It’s not necessary to take steps to increase racial and socioeconomic diversity in schools

One group of adults were then asked the below follow-up question, which included simple arguments both in favor and against school integration (emphasizing the benefits and costs to students, respectively). Another group of survey respondents were in a control group and received no such frame.

  • Student Benefit Frame: “We should be doing more to increase diversity in our schools because experience shows that when students go to a school with people from all kinds of different backgrounds, they get a better, more well-rounded education. Not only do they learn understanding and empathy for people from all walks of life, they also are all much better prepared to live and work in our increasingly diverse society.”
  • Student Cost Frame: “Forcing school integration is bad for kids. It results in longer commutes, lower academic outcomes, less personal choice and more racial tensions. It’s not the job of schools to fix society’s larger problems—just teach all kids equally no matter what school they attend.”

Participants who received both the student benefit and student cost arguments were then asked again whether or not they thought steps should be taken to increase diversity in schools on a ten-point scale. It is worth noting that we intentionally presented participants with a strongly worded student cost frame, describing school integration as being “forced” upon them and asserting that doing so would lead to negative outcomes that research and evidence show are unlikely to occur.

Yet even pitted against an aggressive counter-argument, the results demonstrate that simple, common-sense student benefit messaging can be an effective tool to build public support for school integration. Compared with the control group baseline, the student benefit message moved more people toward taking steps to diversify schools (32 percent) than away (24 percent).6

There was also a great deal of variation with regard to who moves in response to the student benefit versus the student cost frame. Perhaps most importantly, adults with children in public school moved significantly toward diversity in response to the student benefit frame (47 percent move toward integration and 12 percent move away, for a net gain of +35 points). The frame also worked particularly well with Republican women, who had a net movement of +22 points toward integration.

Figure 6

Finally, the research shows that the student benefit message increases the intensity of people’s responses. Compared to the control group, which received no framing prompt, the student benefit frame increased the importance of racial diversity among respondents by 9 percentage points, and increased the importance of economic diversity by 7 percentage points. The student benefit narrative shifts more people toward saying diversity is “extremely important” (+3 points in racial diversity and +5 points in economic diversity).

Table 2
Student benefit messaging increases intensity of support for diversity
Control Group Student Benefit Framing
Racial important 49% 58% (+9)
Racial extremely important 26% 29% (+3)
Economic important 50% 57% (+7)
Economic extremely important 23% 28% (+5)


Education is a deeply personal issue. Americans of all backgrounds bring complex, often contradictory, views to the topic. But one thing is true across the board: people want the best for their children. Thus, in order for people to support school reforms, they must see the proposed changes as directly benefiting themselves, their children, and their family.

Unfortunately, opponents of school integration have conveyed the impression that efforts at desegregating schools results in an unequal trade-off between privileged and underprivileged students, with winners, losers, and strife. This line of argument portrays integration as effectively and inappropriately sacrificing the immediate well being of students in the service of larger social projects like tackling America’s problems with race and class disparities. It even serves to undermine the commitment of progressive, racially conscious parents and community members.

But this framing could not be further from the truth. In fact, the opposite is true: integrated schools benefit all students. As advocates for school diversity, we must better communicate the direct benefits to individual students that flow from integration, and link student benefits clearly and logically to larger social benefits, such as greater racial harmony and a better prepared workforce. Our research offers promising signs that this approach can be an effective tool in generating public buy-in for desegregation efforts, even when faced against the strongest of counter-arguments. The message is culturally resonant and easily understood, working across diverse communities and speaking to a core function of public education. Much like attending diverse schools, we all would benefit from using it.

We would like to thank the education leaders, advocates, and student representative who served on the advisory group for this project, including Akeshia Craven-Howell, Arlen Benjamin-Gomez, Emma Vadehra, Francisco Martinez, Gina Chirichigno, Jace Valentine, Jeff Li, Joshua Starr, and Laura Furlong.

Survey Methodology

The survey was conducted by the Topos Partnership, working in collaboration with Dynata, and supported by The Century Foundation. The survey was conducted online January 6–10, 2021 and January 15–16, 2021. A total of 1,103 respondents were interviewed and screened to ensure an oversample of Black and Hispanic respondents.

Unweighted completes by race were:
White, non-Hispanic, n=437
Hispanic, n=263
Black, n=299
Asian Am, n=50
Other self-described POC, n=18

Survey responses were weighted to reflect the U.S. population. The responses reflect a diversity of adults by gender (Men n=539, Women n=561), education (High school or less n=309, Some college n=364, College degree or above n=419), political party (Democrats n=408, Independents/Other n=365, Republicans n=330), geographic region (Northeast n=187, Midwest n=232, South n=419, West n=265), area type (Large City n=265, Suburb n=474, Town/Small City n=188, Rural n=165), self-reported diversity of location (Very Diverse n=279, Somewhat Diverse n=546, Not So/Not Diverse n=279) and age (Under 25 years old n=132, 25-34 years old n=199, 35-44 years old n=176, 45-54 years old n=176, 55-64 years old n=188, Over 65 years old n=232). The sample was weighted to reflect 164 parents of public school children and 45 parents of private school children.


  1. In order to inform TalkBack testing and the survey, researchers conducted thirty-five forty-five-minute open-ended interviews over Zoom with Black, White, Hispanic, and Asian respondents with ages ranging from 23 to 62. Of the 35 respondents, 20 had children in public schools and 4 had children in private schools.
  2. In the TalkBack method, developed by Topos principals, subjects are presented with brief texts (roughly 100-120 words) and then asked several open-ended questions, focusing in part on subjects’ abilities to repeat the core of the message, or pass it along to others. For this research, TalkBack testing was conducted from July to September 2020 using twenty-four texts of roughly 125 words each. Overall, 600 respondents from around the country participated. The sample was selected to reflect U.S. diversity, but with some over-sampling of more highly educated, moderate, and liberal parents, whose resistance to integrated education has been problematic. An effort was made to include people with experience in a variety of types of schools as parents, residents, and students themselves—including traditional public schools (by far the majority) as well as private, charter, and magnet schools.
  3. We compare our 2021 results with results from the 2019 annual PDK “Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public School,” which asks the same question with the same wording (and which served as the basis when drafting our survey question). See:
  4. Does not add up to 100 percent due to rounding.
  5. Younger people refer to those under 45 years old.
  6. “Movement” here refers to any change in response on the 10-point scale pre- and post-message.