America's most segregating school district borders

Although recent analyses show that the child poverty rate isn't as high as many people believe, the fact remains that millions of American students attend under-resourced schools. For many of these children, well-resourced schools are geographically close but practically out of reach; high home prices and the scarcity of open enrollment policies make it all but impossible for low-income families to cross district borders for a better education.

Some research shows that low-income children benefit from attending school with better-off peers. Middle- and upper-income children may also benefit from an economically diverse setting. In short, income integration is a win-win for everyone involved. So why do the vast majority of school districts in the United States remain segregated by income? The answer isn’t much of a mystery: Schools are mainly funded by locally raised property taxes, which functionally “give wealthier communities permission to keep their resources away from the neediest schools.”

In order to examine just how isolating school district borders can be for low-income students, a relatively new nonprofit called EdBuild recently examined 33,500 school borders for school districts in 2014 and identified the difference in childhood poverty rates between districts on either side of the boundary line. (For poverty rates, the report uses the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates, also know as SAIPE.) While a typical school district border has a student poverty rate difference of seven percentage points, EdBuild identified fifty school district borders where the difference ranged from thirty-four to forty-two percentage points. These fifty districts are located in just fourteen states, and Ohio claims nine spots in the top fifty—more than any other state.

The top four most segregated borders are between: 1) Detroit and Grosse Pointe, Michigan; 2) Birmingham and Vestavia Hills, Alabama 3) Birmingham and Mountain Brook, Alabama; and 4) Clairton and West Jefferson Hills, Pennsylvania. Clocking in at number five is Fordham’s hometown of Dayton, which has a 40.7 percent difference in student poverty rate from neighboring Beavercreek. Dayton shows up again in the seventh spot with a 40.3 percent difference from neighboring Oakwood. An interesting caveat to Dayton’s story is that Ohio actually has an inter-district open enrollment program. State law permits kids in Dayton—many of whom are enrolled in schools that aren’t just under-resourced but also academically failing—to enroll in one of the surrounding suburban school districts, but only if the receiving district chooses to allow it. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, both Beavercreek and Oakwood have declined to accept open enrollment students.

The overall picture presented by the fifty most disparate district borders is bleak. For instance, the poorer of these districts have an average poverty rate of 46 percent compared to their wealthier neighbors’ average of just 9 percent. The average home in the affluent districts is worth approximately $131,000 more than the average home in the neighboring high-poverty district; as a result, wealthy districts are able to generate more local funds via property taxes—about $4,500 more per student. This disparity exists despite the fact that several high-poverty districts tax themselves at a higher rate than their affluent neighbors.

EdBuild’s report doesn’t offer any specific policy recommendations. However, in a related piece in the Atlantic, the organization’s CEO, Rebecca Sibilia, calls for decreasing the importance of district boundaries by “creating a larger tax pool that can fairly resource schools.” These ideas are undoubtedly horrifying to defenders of the public district monopoly and champions of so-called local control, but EdBuild’s report already offers its response to such opposition: “School district boundaries have become the new status quo for separate but unequal. It’s time to rethink the system.”

SOURCE: “Fault Lines: America’s Most Segregating School District Borders,” EdBuild, (August 2016).

Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an Education Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.