Penn GSE Researchers Find Racial Disparities in Ferguson Schools, School Closures

Wednesday, August 20, 2014
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Jeff Frantz/(215) 898-3269

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Philadelphia, PA—Ferguson, Mo. shares its public school district with Florissant, a neighboring community. University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education researchers found stark racial differences between the two towns, despite their geographic proximity. Most school-age children in Ferguson are African American (78%), whereas White children are the majority in Florissant (52%).

Shaun Harper and Charles Davis, directors of Penn GSE’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, matched data from the U.S. Census with statistics from the U.S. Department of Education to determine the extent to which schools in the Ferguson-Florissant School District reflect the children who live in the two communities, which are just 3.4 miles apart. They found that 68% of White school-age children who live in Ferguson or Florissant do not attend public schools in the District. Conversely, public schools there are 78% Black, with three-fourths of students across racial groups qualifying for free or reduced lunch.

“Ferguson had structural problems that systematically disadvantage Black families long before a White police officer killed an unarmed Black teenager,” Harper suggests. “Inequitable schooling didn’t start two weeks ago.” He adds, “White families are obviously aware of alternatives to the Ferguson-Florissant School District. Are Black families uninformed of their choices or are there other, more troubling structural explanations?”

The District notes on its website that schools are closed this week due to unrest in and around Ferguson. Local law enforcement officials and district security staff were consulted on this decision, according to the site. Last Thursday, Aug. 14, was supposed to be the first day of school. “School closure is disproportionately affecting African American children,” Davis notes. “Their White peers have been in school somewhere for a week, presumably learning and likely getting even further ahead of their African American neighbors.”

Davis and Harper present their findings in an infographic. In it they pose three critical questions regarding school closings and Black children in the Ferguson-Florissant District: where are their white neighbors attending school, what are they eating this week, and are they safer at home than at school? 

Six of the District’s seven school board members are White. “They govern the District, but most White residents are not willing to send their children to Ferguson-Florissant public schools,” Davis observes.


About the Researchers

Shaun R. Harper is a professor in the Penn Graduate School of Education and Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education.

Charles H.F. Davis III is Director of Higher Education Research and Initiatives at Penn GSE’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. 


About Penn GSE

Penn GSE is one of the nation’s premier research education schools. No other education school enjoys a university environment as supportive of practical knowledge-building as the University of Pennsylvania. Penn GSE has long been known for excellence in qualitative research, language and literacy studies, practitioner inquiry and teacher education. Over the past 15 years, Penn GSE has also developed remarkable strengths in quantitative research, policy studies, evaluation, higher education, and psychology and human development. The School is notably entrepreneurial, launching innovative degree programs for practicing professionals and unique partnerships with local educators, and the first-ever business plan competition devoted exclusively to educational products and programs. For further information about Penn GSE, please visit

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