Spanish-speaking children in California increasingly concentrated in low-income schools, study finds

November 21, 2002

Hispanic children in California who have limited ability to speak English attend schools with growing concentrations of low-income, minority students, according to a study to be published this month in the journal Demography.

In 2000 in California, the average Hispanic student with limited English proficiency attended a school in which 71 percent of other students were from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. This was up from 54 percent in 1989, the study found.

The research, which analyzes statewide data from public schools in California, found that these percentages are higher for Spanish-speaking children than for other students with limited English, most of whom are Asian. Spanish-speaking students also are more likely than Asian children to be in schools with low percentages of English speakers and high numbers of minority students.

The study's authors, Jennifer Van Hook and Kelly Stamper Balsitreri of Bowling Green State University, argue that the increasing concentration poses barriers to upward mobility for immigrant children.

"Hispanics may bear the brunt of institutional disadvantage," the authors say, because they are the largest immigrant group and tend to be poor and to be residentially segregated.

"These characteristics produce a situation in which it is nearly impossible for school districts in 'Hispanic areas' not to be mostly poor, mostly minority, and mostly non-English-speaking," the authors say. "Hispanics in such areas tend to overwhelm school districts demographically."

To counter the isolation in the future might require that boundaries for new districts include a more diverse group of neighborhoods, the authors suggest. But they point out that the increasing concentration of limited-English Hispanic students is also due to their disproportionate numbers in particular schools within districts. Changes in district assignment policies could also help break down their isolation, according the authors.

In 2000, one in four California students had limited ability to speak English, nearly double the proportion in 1985. During the same period, the proportion of limited-English Spanish-speakers rose from more than 72 percent to more than 82 percent. At the same time, public school students became poorer (47 percent participated in the school meals program, up from 31 percent in 1989) and less "white" (63 percent belonged to a racial or ethnic minority in 2000, compared with 47 percent in 1985).

The research shows that "much of the change occurring in students' schools can be linked to the shifting composition of the state, and ultimately, to the growth of the immigrant population." Nearly one-third of the 3.5 million children nationwide who were described in the 2000 Census as speaking English less than "very well" live in California.
[To read the article before publication, go to, click on "Articles from journal Demography", username: cpipr; password: demography. Or call the Center for Public Information on Population Research at 202-939-5414.]

Population Reference Bureau is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to