Last week, Richard Rothstein and Mark Santow wrote a compelling piece, reminding us of the continued, devastating impact of segregation on educational equality. Stated succintly, “There is little chance we can substantially narrow the achievement gap without breaking up heavy concentrations of low-income minority children in urban schools, giving these children opportunities to attend majority middle-class schools outside their distressed neighborhoods.”

Segregation is, arguably, the single biggest contributor to the American racial achievement gap. Resources, not just school funding but also teaching talent, become concentrated in whiter, wealthier areas. Furthermore, racial isolation of largely black schools has psychologically damaging effects on these students in a country where white is still firmly atop the racial hierarchy.  For these reasons, separate remains inherently unequal. But segregation is not simply harmful to minority students; it is damaging to students of every class and color. The research is clear that diverse learning environments yield positive benefits for all students.

Despite the end of de jure segregation under Brown v. Board of Education, schools are still as de facto segregated as they were in the 1950s. Because schooling is largely local, particularly in younger grades, school segregation is the direct result of residential segregation—that is, brick-and-mortar schools require that students show up in person, and therefore the large majority of students attend schools close to their homes. This poses a further problem to policymakers who struggle to devise integration schemes that do not put undue burden on students and parents to travel long distances across neighborhood or even city lines, and on school districts to pay massive transportation costs.  But the alternative costs are just as great, as many of our country’s students are now educated in racially isolated environments that are overwhelmingly correlated with poor school quality.

Enter online learning.

Although perhaps not immediately obvious, civil-rights advocates and digital-learning proponents have some common ground. One of the greatest benefits of online learning is its increased flexibility and convenience—at its best, students can learn whenever they want, wherever they want. Because online courses can be consumed anywhere, they expand the opportunities for students to learn from the best instructors from across the world. But the removal of geographic constraints not only introduces the possibility of a broader range of learning opportunities, but also the idea that school choice need no longer be limited to one’s neighborhood. Virtual classrooms make physical location irrelevant, as they knock down one major barrier to pulling together students of diverse perspectives, races, and cultures into a single learning environment. Children can sit in classrooms with peers from across racially segregated neighborhoods without the logistical and time-related costs of transportation. The positive effects of diverse classrooms may even be magnified as peer-to-peer online learning tools become more prominent and more effective in the years ahead.

Unlike strategies, such as busing, which are controversial for removing children from their own neighborhoods, virtual-learning environments allow more children to be educated where they live but still have access to integrated schools.  The school system may be able to leapfrog over the still impervious forces of residential segregation and create hope that no student will experience the harms of a racially isolated school. As physical geography becomes less of a factor in where or how students learn, bad schools may no longer be hopelessly linked to certain neighborhoods, thereby breaking the connection between poor educational quality and minority students.

There is no denying that logistical constraints are only one challenge to integrating schools—the political and social resistance to integration is just as powerful. Online learning, particularly as it increases in quality, however, can be a new tool to combat segregation and challenge the geography of inequality. After all, educational quality cannot be reduced to zip code when schools are located in the virtual world.


  • Meredith Liu
    Meredith Liu