By Kara S. Finnigan & Jennifer Jellison Holme (click here for the PDF)
As we argue in our book, Striving in Common: A Regional Equity Framework for Urban Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2018), many of the inequities entrenched in the US educational system are regional in nature, rooted in historic patterns of segregation and perpetuated and deepened by competitive relationships between school districts. Change requires dismantling these systems of relationships and the inequities upon which they are based through a regional approach.
Our Regional Equity Framework (REF) outlines ways to break down boundaries and dynamics that reinforce inequities between school systems, while at the same shoring up communities that have experienced generations of disinvestment. Our framework has multiple components to tackle the historical inequities and deeply entrenched issues relating to segregation, particularly in parts of the Midwest and Northeast that are extremely fragmented areas with multiple districts in one region. The framework can also be adapted to areas that are larger geographically, usually serving students across an entire county in one school district, as these frequently have similar patterns of segregation – in this case within the district. In both cases, our approach tackles longstanding structural and political challenges through resource reallocation, targeted investments in high-need areas, and student assignment policies across intra or inter-district boundaries, as well as cross-sector alignment.
Components of the Regional Equity Framework
Our research study of metropolitan areas across the country, identified five key components to address educational inequality across regions:
1. Tax Base Sharing: Fragmented local governments, as we discuss in our book, result in fiscal inequality between communities, with “winners” and “losers” in any given community. State school aid formulas are frequently designed to address these inequities but the money provided rarely is sufficient and often is politically tenuous. Tax base sharing connects the fate of communities in terms of tax resources and reduces the perverse incentives in communities that lead high-wealth municipalities to engage in actions that enhance their advantages and work against lower-wealth communities.
2. “In-Place” Investments: Our framework also involves policies that are focused on directing investment and resources into high-poverty and traditionally marginalized communities. These ‘in place’ approaches are important but will have limited impact and sustainability unless incorporated within a broader regional framework that attacks the structures of inequality themselves.
3. Mobility Policies: Mobility strategies, like school choice policies to promote integration or magnet school policies, seek to reduce the impact of racial and economic segregation, one of the most fundamental ways to address this is by changing the geographic distribution of affordable housing, e.g., by building more affordable housing or providing access to existing housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods Research has found that providing vouchers to families to secure housing in high opportunity neighborhoods yields significant gains in long-term outcomes, and for those children who attended low-poverty schools, also short term educational gains (see Chetty, Hendren & Katz, 2015; Turner, Nichols & Comey, 2012). These strategies must be accompanied by educational policy shifts such as teacher training around culturally relevant curriculum and instruction.
4. Regional Governance: Regional strategies require oversight of implementation through a regional decision-making body to coordinate decisions at a regional scale and ensure commitment toward equity, particularly in localities that may be resistant. A regional body must be given authority to make decisions on key equity issues and enforce compliance.
5. Cross-Sector Approaches: The final strategy we argue for within our framework is the use of cross-sector approaches, where educational policy is pursued in tandem with housing, transit, health, economic development, etc. As we discuss in our book in more detail, building upon structures that already exist, like Metropolitan Planning Organizations, would be a useful political strategy.
Below we outline a few specific policy strategies at the state and federal level that could more directly incorporate components of our REF in policy design. It is equally important to acknowledge the politics of implementing these policies: public policy and private actors have created racialized spaces that are, as legal theorist Richard Thompson Ford argues, self-perpetuating in terms of power and inequity (Ford, 2001). This has created a system in which communities are divided and defend their own interests through either legal or political channels. Regions that are divided against themselves undercut the coalitions necessary to bring about change. This division manifests itself in localism, supported by political coalitions and interests that are invested in defending the status quo and, therefore, work against broader regional equity solutions. Thus, incentivizing new ways of thinking – and resulting policies – is critical given the competing interests at the local level and strong push against regional change in spite of all the research that continues to show the critical need for regional equity.
State Policy Toward Regional Equity
States play an important role, as the inequities that exist across regions are under the jurisdiction of the state and must be attended to by state governmental bodies. In 2020, the NY Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights called for the state of NY to tackle this in its report, Education Equity in New York: A Forgotten Dream (New York Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights, 2020). Based upon testimony of academics, school administrators, government officials, and advocates with expertise in this area, the NY State Advisory Committee (SAC) recommended that “the Governor and the New York State legislature establish a blue-ribbon commission to explore alternative funding structures to the current inequitable local tax-based system as well as ways to reduce racial segregation within and across school districts as one of its ten recommendations.” Alexandra D. Korry, chair of the New York SAC, stated in the press release for the report: “New York’s failure to provide a decent education to its poorest students, many of whom are students of color, violates the very precepts of a civil and just society and deprives our children of even the possibility of participation in society. This is the civil rights issue of our time.”
One strategy at the state level would be to address this much in the same way states have focused on regional economic development. For example, in NY, more than $5 billion has been awarded in the last decade to focus on “cooperation and investing in regional assets to generate opportunity” with regional councils competing against each other for resources. Our framework would suggest that moving forward, any competitive grant program in education would need to include the five components of our framework (tax-sharing, place-based approaches, mobility approaches, regional governance, and cross-sector approaches) as heavily weighted criteria for funding.
Another avenue for promoting regional equity in education is state funding formulas. State funding formulas alone will not solve the issues discussed above, but they can be an important mechanism for addressing regional inequities by allowing for, or incentivizing, tax base sharing as we share in our book using Omaha Nebraska’s Learning Community legislation as an example. Tax base sharing can also disincentivize higher-income suburban districts from continuing to hoard or “monopolize” the resources in a metropolitan area (See Wilson in this special issue).
State Every Student Succeeds Act plans could also target some of the areas of our framework by incentivizing cross-sector planning and programs, student assignment policies that address segregation, and targeted ‘in place’ investments to both strengthen particular communities and programs and being to reduce the disparities within a particular region. Importantly, state guidance could require more than one of these strategies be undertaken by local areas, and a regional body put in place to ensure equity and oversee implementation. State plans could also incentivize interdistrict magnet schools that recruit students across district lines. They also could require that local school district planning around school improvement involves other sectors like housing, health, and transportation (National Coalition on School Diversity, 2020). While these will not alone address segregation or bring about equity in education and housing in a metro area, they are steps in the right direction and could generate coalitions and political will toward regional equity.
Federal Policy Toward Regional Equity
The federal government has a role to play in using its bully pulpit to orient communities toward regional equity. This was seen in the “Dear Colleagues” letter of June 2016, from the secretaries of the departments of housing (Julian Castro), transportation (Anthony R. Foxx), and education (John B. King) as they called upon their respective groups to promote interagency cooperation and planning in local communities.
The federal government also has a role in using its incentives to prompt state or local action. Through the reauthorization of the Every Student Succeeds Act, and/or through other federal grant programs like Opening Doors, Expanding Opportunities (which was part of the School Improvement Grants of Title 1), the federal government could incentivize using the REF for planning and new policy approaches that work toward its full enactment, e.g., by beginning with the creation of a regional governance body, or the integration of education within its existing regional body, and a small tax base sharing program as critical first steps toward the full REF. The state plan would then have to spell out the mobility policies and place-based investments as well as cross-sector approaches that would be implemented as next steps in pursuit of regional equity goals in educational access and outcomes across a region. Reorienting local areas away from competitive instincts and toward collective goals will require specific guidance and incentives. The Obama Administration’s “Sustainable Communities Initiative” was a step in this direction, although it excluded education agencies from the regional planning process, which made the resulting plans less effective than they could have been.
Finally, another way to use our framework at the federal level would be through the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and/or Department of Justice (DOJ) under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The disparate impact provision of Title VI regulations prohibits state or local governmental agencies from practices that exclude or harm particular groups. The target or unit for investigation and compliance by OCR or DOJ might vary depending on the particular context. For example, in fragmented areas with many districts, the target would be the state, while in larger districts aligned with counties, the target would be the district. Nunberg and Petty (2021) walk through what exactly this would mean if OCR or DOJ investigated the disparate impact of resources, access, etc., at the state level given the disparities across districts. As they note:
“In New York, as elsewhere, the state defines school funding formulae, draws school district lines, and establishes discipline-related policies that districts are required to follow. Thus, even if OCR were to expand the number of resource comparability and discipline compliance reviews across the state, focusing on districts alone will not suffice to fully correct racial disparities directly tied to the state’s failure to address the systemic denial of educational opportunities for Black and Latinx students. In other, similar cases where these kinds of actions create patterns of exclusion across states, rather than investigate school districts who in many cases are following or responding to state requirements, OCR and/or DOJ would have the greatest impact by acting on a statewide basis.”
In crafting any resolution, the OCR or DOJ could use the Regional Equity Framework to identify specific strategies, including around boundaries/school assignment, funding formulas, targeted programs, or cross-sector strategies that would ensure progress toward regional educational equity.
The political challenges of “striving in common” are no small matter – in fact, how to get these things done deserves attention to facilitate authentic and sustainable progress. As we argue in our book, however, these challenges, though significant, are not insurmountable – they require an intentional, multifaceted, cross-sector, and regional policy approach. ▀
Kara S. Finnigan (email@example.com) is a Professor at the Warner School of Education and Distinguished Equity, Inclusion, and Social Transformation Fellow of the Office of Equity and Inclusion at the University of Rochester.
Jennifer Jellison Holme (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Professor in the College of Education and holds the L.D. Haskew Centennial Professorship in Public School Administration at the University of Texas at Austin.
Chetty, R., Hendren, N. & Katz, L. (2015). The effects of exposure to better neighborhoods on children: New evidence from the Moving To Opportunity experiment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University and NBER.
Ford, R. T. (2001). The boundaries of race: Political geography in legal analysis. In J.A. Powell, G. Kearney & V. Kay (Eds), In pursuit of a dream deferred: Linking housing and education policy. New York: Peter Lang.
National Coalition on School Diversity (2020). Including racial and socioeconomic diversity in state ESSA plans. Washington, DC: Author.
New York Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights (2020). Education equity in New York: A forgotten dream. Chicago: US Commission on Civil Rights.
Nunberg, M. & Petty, L. (2021). A new federal approach to school integration, inspired by student activists. Washington DC: The Century Foundation.
Turner, M.A., Nichols, A. & Comey, J. (2012). Benefits of living in high-opportunity neighborhoods: Insights from the Moving to Opportunity demonstration. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.