By Tomás Monarrez (click here for the PDF)
On October 19th, President Biden signed the Executive Order on White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Black Americans. The order acknowledges the role of systemic racial injustice as a key driver of existing racial inequality in educational and economic achievement, and it highlights the critical importance of improving educational opportunities for the Black population for the benefit of the whole US population.
Section 2 of the order states:
“The Initiative shall advance educational equity and economic opportunity for Black students, families, and communities by focusing on the following policy goals: … (viii) eliminating discriminatory enrollment, housing, transportation, and other policies that lead to racial and socioeconomic segregation among and within schools.”
In a recent report, we examined the role of individual school attendance boundary lines in perpetuating racial and ethnic segregation in urban school systems. We find more than 2,000 pairs of neighboring public schools that are vastly different in terms of the racial and ethnic composition of the population living on either side of the boundary. We show that inequality between these schools (many of which are within the same school district) takes place not only in terms of racial and ethnic demographics but with regard to school staffing, educational program offerings, student discipline rates, and mean student achievement on standardized exams. Unequal school attendance zones not only perpetuate racial and ethnic segregation, they amplify inequality between students of color and their White peers, all while being almost right next to each other.
The report is accompanied by an online tool allowing users to interact with the most unequal school boundaries separately for each metropolitan area. These data can serve two purposes. First, they highlight “critical targets” for school integration. While we cannot be sure that these lines were intentionally discriminatory, our work establishes that they are discriminatory in their effect regardless of intent. They represent an opportunity: changing these lines for the better could improve integration considerably, although the local politics may be a potential barrier. Second, the tool establishes a measurement and data analysis framework that should be adopted by regulatory bodies (including the HUD “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” rule). Our analysis is based on the analysis of census and GIS boundary data, using methods that require some technical ability, but which are not beyond the means of many data analysts in the government agencies. It is important for the agencies to map census and boundary data when evaluating potential policy reforms that might impact the location of housing or education public investments.
In addition, our report studies how many racially unequal school boundaries are linked to the New Deal’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) redlining maps, a notorious instance of explicit and consequential racist federal policy. We show that redlining maps often match closely with the school boundary lines we detect as racially unequal. Averaging across our list of unequal school boundaries, the side currently with more Black or Hispanic residents is more likely to have had a HOLC grade that was rated “hazardous” than the side with more White residents which was more likely to be rated “best” or “desirable.” This evidence suggests that many of the racially unequal boundaries in our current data set are direct vestiges of our cities’ historic roots of explicit racism, and not merely an artifact of recent individual household choices.
Persistent school segregation is the legacy of racist housing policy and the product of intentional decisions by the local officials that determine school enrollment policies. Our findings show that small changes to the attendance boundaries of neighboring schools in many cases could make a big difference for school integration. That some districts already use school attendance boundaries to promote integration demonstrates the viability of this strategy. But, such changes require political will and a commitment to sharing access to high-quality opportunities, as discussed by Finnigan and Holme in this special issue. Racially unequal school boundaries should be viewed as a highly inefficient preservation of old, problematic policy in need of immediate updating by local, state, and federal policymakers. ▀
Tomás Monarrez (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Research Associate in the Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute. The “Dividing Lines” Report is available at www.urban.org.