The structure of public education in the U.S., with its unequal funding, enrollment rights tied to property, and de facto segregation has created a system where high-opportunity schools are a scarce resource to be hoarded. The resources provided to individual schools and the opportunities gained from them vary widely, making resource-rich, high-opportunity schools a sought-after commodity. Public school enrollment policy, which determines who has access to specific schools and who is excluded, was established with land use and local funding and control in mind (Gutek, 1991). Enrollment policies that couple residential address with assignment to a particular school create a sense that enrollment rights are gained through a real estate marketplace. Both individuals and institutions treat public schools as a private good, where access can be bought, sold, and even stolen. Access to schools that are perceived as providing the most value to an individual greatly affects the marketplace value of the homes that are zoned to them (Dougherty, 2012). This restricts access to high-opportunity schools to those that have the necessary capital and income to buy into the neighborhood, and bars everyone else (Goldstein & Hastings, 2019; Holme, 2000). Realtors and popular real estate websites advertise the specific schools that a home is zoned to and their ratings. Both the school ratings and demographics influence parents’ home purchase choices (Billingham & Hunt, 2016; Holme, 2000).
Home buyers conceptualize school enrollment rights as property that they have purchased with their home. These enrollment rights are imagined as property in two distinct but related ways: the school as a commodity that delivers an economic benefit to the students, and the property value of real estate that is related to the perceived value of the zoned school. Both conceptions of property were illustrated in comments on a digital public forum around possible boundary changes in Austin, Texas (Thought Exchange, 2019). Parents indicated that enrollment rights to a specific school is property that they purchased with their home as in the following statement. “We don’t think it’s ok to just suddenly redraw boundary maps. We moved into our house, put roots down and spent our life savings in order to be in a location specifically for the school.” Parents buy access to specific schools that they believe will provide their children with a set of economic advantages. The beliefs about how this value is mediated through the school are entangled with racialized conceptions of school quality. Though not often explicitly stated, many parents conceptualize the quality of the education that a school can provide as related to the demographics of the student body (Billingham & Hunt, 2016; Hailey, 2022). Another commenter on the public forum (Thought Exchange, 2019) stated: “Anderson HS will be dumbed down to the point – top colleges won’t recruit from it. You must have competitive students in top hard classes. Once your student demographic changes drastically everything else will follow.” When the demo- graphics of their child’s school is open to change, they believe that their property, the quality of education that they have purchased with their home, is under threat.
The second way in which school enrollment is conceptualized as property pertains to the very real effects that school demographics have on home prices. Concentrated wealth and whiteness at schools is valued in the real estate marketplace (Billingham & Hunt, 2016; Goldstein & Hastings, 2019). When a school’s demographics change, the demand for homes zoned to the school change. Home-owners understand that they could lose out on their investments if the demographics of their zoned schools are materially altered. Another parent commented on the same forum about possible school boundary changes: “Property values are driven by school ratings. That’s what every realtor will tell you when purchasing a home in Austin. Our property values will fall if we are re-zoned from schools ranked a 10 to schools ranked a 2. Middle-class people lose out on their investments.” Parents conceptualize enrollment to public schools as private property, an appurtenance to their home that affects real estate value and their wealth.
In Milliken v. Bradley (1974), a landmark Supreme Court case, the Court ruled that because the suburbs were not actively segregating Detroit schools, they could not be forced to actively desegregate them. This ruling implied that school districts could exclude students from outside of district boundaries, so long as the exclusion was not the explicit policy of the districts. As a result, parents wrongly construed the Milliken ruling as confirmation that the right to exclude (a core tenet of property rights) applied to school enrollment.
The conception of school enrollment as property requires parents to perceive that education is a property right carrying the right to exclude. This right to exclude is supported by the expectations of exclusive control and access to a specific school that home buyers have when they purchase their homes. Homeownership, then, gives taxpayers control over the education of their community; and this control is protected by law enforcement and school district officials through civil and criminal penalties (Baldwin Clark, 2019). In fact, school districts and district attorneys have pursued penalties against parents for residency violations or the act of enrolling their children in a school district in which neither the child nor the parent reside (Baldwin Clark, 2019; Baldwin Clark, 2021). Most states require a student to prove bona fide residence to enroll in a school – inextricably tying residency to school attendance (Baldwin Clark, 2019). By criminalizing residency violations, the state, through criminal and civil law, protects and confirms parents’ perceived property right to school enrollment and allows school attendance to be governed by residency restrictions, education law, and civil and criminal penalties. The punishment of residency violations gives the false impression that taxpayers hold a property right to their child’s seat in the classroom. Parents police this perceived property right by advocating for the strict enforcement of district boundaries and excluding students who do not reside within the neighborhood (Baldwin Clark, 2021).
However, school enrollment is actually not a property right in the traditional sense. Property interests, or rights, must arise from legitimate claims of entitlement based on positive laws (federal, state, or local) (Tanious, 2022). Thus far, courts have declined to find a property interest in attendance at a particular school (Tanious, 2022).Claims of entitlement to attendance at a particular school stem in part from ideals of white privilege and the historically racist foundations of school choice (Pierce, 2021). Further, penalties for “stealing education” contribute to race-class opportunity hoarding (Baldwin Clark, 2021).
Opportunity hoarding (Tilly, 1998) is when a network acquires access to a valuable resource that is subject to monopoly, members hoard the resource, and create beliefs and practices that maintain their control of the resource. When the network is bounded by an external category, such as race, the opportunity hoarding “contributes to the creation and maintenance of categorical inequality.” (Tilly, 1998). In the United States the category of whiteness has contributed to the maintenance of segregated and inequitable schools (Wilson, 2020). “In ways so embedded that it is rarely apparent, the set of assumptions, privileges, and benefits that accompany the status of being white have become a valuable asset… Whites have come to expect and rely on these benefits, and over time these expectations have been affirmed, legitimated, and protected by the law” (Harris, 1993, p. 1713). Both the behavior of parents in accessing and maintaining segregated schools and the systems within public and private institutions have interacted to ‘affirm, legitimate, and protect’ the right of privileged, mostly White, parents to hoard access to well-resourced, high-opportunity schools (Cashin, 2021).
The sorting of students into segregated schools and districts with inequitable resources and opportunities is harmful for our society, economy, and democracy. The educational goals of democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility have all been promoted as objectives in directing the focus of our public education system throughout the history of the United States (Labaree, 1997), but are at odds with existing funding and enrollment policy that allows for opportunity hoarding. A well-functioning democracy requires a well-educated populace with the shared values necessary to participate in democratic systems. Public schools that emphasize democratic equality prepare students to take on the duties that are required in a system that shares power of governance through democratic systems. Students who attend schools from a wide range of backgrounds are better prepared to work with people that have different perspectives, which is necessary for a functioning democracy (McGlothlin & Killen, 2010; Mickelson & Nkomo, 2012, Tropp & Saxena, 2018). Enrollment policy that results in segregated schools weakens our ability to continue to function as a democracy.
When the purpose of public education is conceptualized as a private good, one that is to serve individuals rather than society as a whole, schools become commodities. Parents seek to gain access to schools that will best serve the economic interests of their children, without consideration on how their choices affect the rest of the students within the system. The opportunity hoarding behaviors of parents and exclusionary practices that are codified and enforced by laws, undermine the goals of public education: democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility. The belief that enrollment rights are property, purchased with one’s home, complicates our ability to address these issues. As long as people and institutions ‘affirm, legitimate, and protect’ the positional advantage of whiteness, we will fail to live out the values we claim to possess.
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Pierce, R., (2021). The Racist History of School Choice. Forbes.
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Valerie Sterne is a Ph.D. student in Education Policy at the University of Texas Austin. Janelle Taylor is a third year student at the Georgetown University Law Center, and a PRRAC Law & Policy Intern.