Researchers Have Identified the Starkest Cases of School District...

Diversity and Equity

Researchers Have Identified the Starkest Cases of School District Segregation

By Nadia Tamez-Robledo     Apr 3, 2024

Researchers Have Identified the Starkest Cases of School District Segregation

Frankenmuth School District has about 1,400 students, nearly 91 percent of whom are white. Its poverty rate is about 5 percent. In contrast, to its west, Saginaw City School District is home to nearly 5,200 students, 81 percent of them students of color. Its poverty rate is 50 percent.

This large economic and racial divide between two adjacent districts in Michigan shows that school segregation persists in the 21st century.

That’s one of the main findings of a new report from researchers from the think tank New America.

Across roughly 60 pages, researchers analyzed 24,658 pairs of districts that share a border.

On average, they found that neighboring school districts differ in student poverty rate by 5 percentage points. But some district pairs revealed far higher levels of economic segregation, like Frankenmuth and Saginaw, whose poverty rates differ by about 45 percentage points.

Researchers point out that the inequities they uncover in the report are not unavoidable. They’re simply products of government policies — like the decision to tie school funding to property wealth — and policies can be changed.

“States need not continue to make policy choices that entrench these deep interdistrict divides,” researchers write. “There are better options: for more inclusive district maps, more equitable and sensible approaches to raising school revenues, and funding systems that support students based on their needs, not their communities’ wealth.”

Racist Roots

School district boundaries generally align with city limits. With large chunks of school funding coming from property taxes, that can lead to disparities in funding even between neighboring districts.

These disparities can be traced back to racist 20th century housing practices like contracts that prevented homeowners from selling to Black buyers, segregated development funded by federal dollars, and the “urban renewal” policies that displaced Black residents.

Researchers found modern effects of these policies are still at play on Long Island, New York, where the divide between Brentwood Union Free School District and West Islip Union Free School District is one of the most segregated in the country (ranking at 34 out of the 100 most racially segregated).

Brentwood’s students are 86 percent Latino and 35 percent English learners, according to the report, while West Islip’s students are 82 percent white and 1 percent English learners. Eleven percent of Brentwood’s students live below the federal poverty line, which the report calls “a staggering number given the economic resources nearby.” Less than 3 percent of West Islip’s students live below the poverty line.

Despite getting less state funding, West Islip’s property wealth more than makes up the difference. Between state and local revenue, “Brentwood Union students get about 71 cents for every dollar given to students in West Islip,” according to the report.

But it doesn’t have to stay that way.

“Like school funding distributions, district borders are a product of state policy,” the authors write. “State laws specify how these lines are drawn and the processes and requirements for changing them. District borders can be redrawn, and border policy can be changed, to produce better outcomes for students and their schools.”

More Money, More Expenses

In some cases, higher-poverty school districts end up getting more funding per pupil than their wealthier neighbors once state funding is factored in. But often, the students have complex needs, and families are more reliant on schools for support.

The Wahluke and Kittitas school districts both operate in rural Washington, about 100 miles southeast of Seattle. The student poverty rates are about 12 percent and 8 percent respectively, but Wahluke School District is made up of nearly 99 percent students of color, compared to Kittitas’ 23 percent.

The Wahluke community is home to taxpayers who are unlikely to increase property taxes in support of more school funding, according to the report, such as farm owners who don’t live nearby and retirement-community residents. Another funding challenge researchers cite is that residents who are living in the country without legal permission fear responding to the census, “which reduces the amount the district receives through federal funding formulas.”

“Most students come from immigrant families who have come to the area to work in agriculture,” researchers say of the Wahluke School District. “The district spends a significant portion of its budget on bilingual education, translation services, and family engagement. Many district parents have come to the United States specifically so that their children can have a better education, and the schools are central to the community.”

Different Solutions for States

Researchers say that solutions to inequality problems that have a long history will have to vary based on the needs within each state. One option is to change school district boundaries to include a better mix of areas with high and low property values. Another is to stop or limit the use of property taxes in funding schools, which could mean divvying up money at the state level or pooling property tax money across wealthy and impoverished districts.

“For too many years, students have had their educations defined by geographies of exclusion and difference,” researchers conclude. “It’s time to draw the line.”

The inequities aren’t just numbers in a spreadsheet. Ultimately, they affect the lives and experiences of real students like Julian Morris, a high school student in Saginaw City.

His Michigan school district topped the report’s list of economically segregated school districts when compared to one of its neighbors, the Frankenmuth School District, whose motto is featured in bright red lettering on its website: “Where Effort Opens Opportunity.” (Saginaw City School District appears on that list five more times due to its stratified poverty rate compared to other bordering districts.)

From Julian’s perspective, though, student effort isn’t really what makes the difference.

“Students in the city are very driven to be successful,” Morris explains in the report. “They want to max out their opportunities in school. But we don’t really get what we need to prepare for college or do well there. We meet the requirements — four years of math, three years of science, a foreign language — but it’s just basics, the bare minimum.”

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