By Ariel H. Bierbaum & Gail L. Sunderman (click here for the PDF)
The increasing diversity of America’s suburbs is changing the dynamics of how we think about access to educational opportunity across and within metropolitan areas. As large numbers of low-income families and families of color migrate to the suburbs (Frey, 2018; Howell & Timberlake, 2014), how policymakers in these communities respond to growth and increasing racial and socioeconomic diversity has implications for the educational opportunities available to students. Unfortunately, we still know too little about the complex ways that school and non-school policies interact with each other to shape access to well-resourced schools in these suburban communities.
Our study examined the interpretation and implementation of policy in response to increasing suburban diversity and school segregation in two Maryland jurisdictions (Bierbaum & Sunderman, 2021). Specifically, we asked the following research question: How do school and non-school policy levers influence school rezoning within the context of diverse, suburban communities? We focused on school attendance zones and non-school policies and the ways that these two arenas interact to foster or disrupt school segregation. School attendance zones play a central role in determining school composition and can be used to reinforce or disrupt segregation at both the school and neighborhood levels. We use the term “non-school policies” to refer to land-use policies and regulations that manage the “pace, location, and extent of development” (Pendall et al., 2006), residential and otherwise, through tools like zoning, growth boundaries, growth caps, affordable housing and impact fees. We used a case study approach to delve into technical aspects of agency-level policy implementation and examine how structural and institutional mechanisms constrain or facilitate efforts to foster school desegregation through school rezoning. In designing this study, we were interested particularly in the roles of state and local public agencies with the power to disrupt school segregation.
We found that school district rezoning policies provide a weak regulatory framework for desegregating schools. The policies and procedures governing school rezoning are not designed to facilitate desegregation, but rather were a response to capacity constraints tied to land-use policies. The formal policy and implementation mechanisms across school and non-school sectors foster the segregated status quo in three specific ways:
1. State-level growth management vision and framework foster segregation at the county level by directing where growth and development take place.
2. School boundary change policies and county-level non-school policies are designed to manage capacity, not composition.
3. Regulations and norms governing the school rezoning public engagement processes privilege opposition to desegregation. The technical and public engagement specificities of both school rezoning and land use tools for growth management efforts (from state and local levels) converge in ways that hinder school desegregation and shield district administrators, school board members, and other county leaders from articulating and operationalizing a desegregation agenda.
This qualitative work builds on and complements a body of largely quantitative studies that have documented the presence of and extent to which school attendance zones foster segregated schools (Monarrez et al., 2021; Richards, 2014; Saporito, 2017a, 2017b; Saporito & Sohoni, 2006, 2007; Saporito & Van Riper, 2016; Siegel-Hawley, 2013; Sohoni & Saporito, 2009) and those that address the relationship between housing and school segregation vis-à-vis school attendance zone designs (Holme et al., 2020; Mawene & Bal, 2020). In contrast, by focusing on local policy implementation and the interaction between non-school policies and school attendance boundaries, our findings point to the importance of greater coordination across governmental levels and policy arenas and affirm that desegregation policy implementation requires attention to the political dimensions that are part and parcel of the relational process between advocates, elected leaders, families, and youth that shape policy development, implementation, and attendant outcomes.
Two Counties, Two Approaches, Similar Segregated Outcomes
Our two case study sites—Howard County and Baltimore County—share similarities in terms of demographic composition and growth patterns. Both are located in central Maryland within the Baltimore metropolitan area; have a mix of urban, rural, and suburban areas; and have seen high rates of population growth over the past 25 years. Both counties have become more diverse, and changes in the racial composition of the population were not evenly distributed across the counties, with Black residents concentrated in older, more urban portions of each county. Howard County has also experienced growth in immigrant populations. Population growth led to a widening wealth gap. In both counties, the proportion of middle-income residents decreased, with the proportion of high-income residents increasing in both counties, but particularly in Howard County, and the proportion of lower-income residents increasing in Baltimore County.
Population growth also led to greater diversity in the enrollment of students in each county’s public school system. In the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS), White student enrollment fell from 79.4% of total enrollment in 1990 to 42.7% in 2015. Black students, the second-largest racial group, stayed consistent at 21.9% of students in 2015 compared to 13.9% in 1990. Enrollment among Asian/Pacific Islander students grew to 19.3% of Howard County students in 2015 from 5.6% in 1990. Additionally, Hispanic student enrollment also grew significantly from 1.0% in 1990 to 9.5% in 2015. The percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals (FARM) enrolled in HCPS tripled between 2000 and 2015, from 7.0% to 21.4%. In the Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS), White students dropped from 77.5% of students in public schools in 1990 to 42.3% in 2015. In contrast, Black student enrollment increased from 18.5% of students in 1990 to 38.6% in 2015. Additionally, the proportion of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals (FARMS) increased from 26.5% of students in 2000 to 46.9% in 2015.
As schools became more diverse, they also became more segregated by race and income in both counties. Segregation by race is most pronounced between Black and White students where the dissimilarity index was 0.511 in Baltimore and 0.380 in Howard in 2010 (Dayhoff & Sunderman, 2014). Based on this index, Baltimore County was the third most racially segregated, and Howard County was the ninth most racially segregated in the state. An analysis of school segregation by income in Baltimore and Howard County schools showed that the dissimilarity index was 0.413 for Howard and 0.391 for Baltimore, suggesting moderate segregation by income in both school districts.
The two districts took different approaches to accommodating student enrollment growth. In Howard County, the district has opened 31 new schools since 1990. Many of these required individual school boundary changes, but the district did not initiate a comprehensive boundary redesign until 2019 (after we finished our data collection). In contrast to Howard County, boundary changes were infrequent in Baltimore County, but increased following the 2011 adoption of the Schools for Our Future school renovation and construction program (Baltimore County Public Schools, 2011). This $1.3 billion school renovation and construction program was aimed at addressing overcrowding in elementary schools, modernizing schools, and installing central air conditioning in all non-air-conditioned schools. In response to the new construction and building renovations, BCPS conducted 10 boundary change studies between 2014 and 2018.
School Attendance Rezoning: A Weak Regulatory Framework for
In Maryland, the system of county-wide school districts provides a better opportunity to use school zoning tools to achieve greater integration than in smaller districts. Despite this context, our analysis of the structural and institutional constraints operating on districts exposed the limitations of these policies—on their own—to address the composition of schools. It showed that while school rezoning policies ostensibly provide a framework for rezoning that could be used to encourage greater integration, structural and institutional constraints—regulatory processes and normative mechanisms (Scott, 2008)—push districts to focus on school capacity needs rather than school composition.
How does this happen?
First, school zoning decisions are not made in a vacuum but rather are shaped by policies and actions taken by other actors in a multi-level and multi-sectoral governance structure. While we often hear about advocacy for school desegregation through better housing policy (Ayscue et al., 2013), we identified complex layers of policy that included land-use controls, growth caps, and zoning that come from both state and local level action. In both districts we studied, districts responded to population trends and development patterns that conflated school capacity with school boundary adjustment proposals, rather than using school rezoning as a proactive approach to managing school composition. This put boundary changes at the tail end of policy decisions emanating from higher levels of government across education and non-education arenas. Maryland’s growth management policies prioritized protecting the environment and preserving rural areas of the state, which directed growth to older, more densely populated, and diverse areas of the counties. Without incentives or policy coordination across policy sectors to encourage desegregation, counties had little inducement to link development policy to its impact on school composition.
Second, the rules governing school zoning policies themselves prioritized capacity over desegregation. The school zoning policies included mechanisms that confined possible rezoning alternatives to those that favored the segregated status quo. When mechanisms to foster desegregation were available to school boards and staff, such as establishing desegregation goals, they did not use them. As a result, boundary changes deviated very little from the existing demographic composition of schools, often at the expense of addressing capacity imbalances between schools. By using enrollment projections and prioritizing capacity issues to initiate a boundary process, these policies legitimized the process by demonstrating that the district was responsive to the community by addressing overcrowding while, at the same time, ensuring the compositional status quo. The application of these policies contributed to consolidating the under-utilization of certain schools, which was conducive to reproducing school segregation (Bonal, 2012, p. 413). In other words, to gain legitimacy, policymakers do what is expected of them and reify particular modes of participation that decoupled (Ray, 2019) the attendance boundary rezoning process from racial and socioeconomic segregation.
Third, our observations affirm the ways that regulatory processes and normative mechanisms structuring the public engagement process influenced which groups mobilized and how conflict was managed. Ultimately, these institutional arrangements privileged opposition to rezoning and provided political leaders cover from difficult decisions that would have favored desegregation; districts could “maintain legitimacy and appear neutral or even progressive while doing little to intervene in pervasive patterns of racial inequality” (Ray, 2019, p. 42). Our findings build on other research that examines how families take advantage of their cultural, political, and social capital to oppose redistricting (see e.g., (Lareau et al., 2018). These accounts focus on how the geographic concentration of families through the housing market led to a pooling of resources to oppose rezoning. Our study demonstrated how people activate their political, cultural, and social capital through the institutional and structural mechanisms governing the rezoning and other land use processes. For example, those opposed to rezoning used the public engagement policies in place to ensure the status quo.
Our findings illustrate the ways in which school districts and other public agencies enable segregation and thereby legitimize the unequal distribution of social and material resources in racially disparate ways, even “in the absence of conscious discriminatory intent” (Ray, 2019, p. 34). The distance between the public commitments to equity and the implementation that is required to realize this goal is vast and is a hallmark of organizations that have institutionalized race into organizational policies and procedures in ways that maintain the status quo (Bonilla-Silva, 2015; Ray, 2019).
Developing Cross-Sector Alternatives to
Foster School Integration
What alternatives may be available to these processes that could close the gap between rhetoric and practice? First, school rezoning processes are not entirely constrained by external factors and could be used to address school composition (Bonal, 2012). For example, school-level segregation indices could be a trigger for rezoning along with school capacity concerns. Following the failure of HCPSS’s rezoning process (the focus of our study), the HCPSS superintendent launched his own plan that prioritized balancing capacity across the system and addressed economic segregation by taking into account the distribution of students by socioeconomic status (Martirano, 2019). Likewise, elsewhere in Maryland, the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) articulated an equity goal that would affect the distribution of students. Students, in particular, mobilized opposition to the district’s current levels of segregation and called for a county-wide, comprehensive boundary study that considers the composition of students as a central axis of analysis (St. George, 2018).
Notwithstanding these efforts, our findings suggest that using school rezoning to intentionally desegregate schools is more complex than simply redrawing school boundary lines based on student demographic information. We offer three additional areas for intervention:
First, school rezoning requires school leaders to develop a deeper understanding of how non-school policy arenas such as growth management and zoning interact with school boundaries and the ability to work across policy sectors to craft policies that address segregation. Since growth management and school attendance policies co-exist and interact across state, county, and district levels, jurisdictions need to pursue multi-faceted policies that work across governmental levels and provide incentives for interagency cooperation.
Second, the state could institute closer oversight of school construction and associated boundary changes for impacts on segregation, creating tighter accountability and regulatory framework for reducing segregation. For example, under its current program, Maryland’s Interagency Commission on School Construction uses four criteria to prioritize state school construction funds to local districts: building age, concentration of low-income students, volume of portable classrooms, and building utilization rates. The state could tie building construction money to school desegregation metrics as well (The National Coalition on School Diversity and PRRAC (Poverty & Race Research Action Council), 2020). In addition, state and county planning documents could articulate social equity goals that consider the composition of neighborhoods. At the federal level, enforcement of fair housing laws could require analysis of school boundaries at the local level. In particular, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing process offers an avenue for local jurisdictions to coordinate housing, land use, and growth management policies with school policies and data to understand and mitigate segregation (see DeBray et al in this special issue for more details on strategies).
Finally, desegregation policy is part of a political process between advocates, elected leaders, families, and youth. Thus, advocates have a role in articulating how cross-sector policies can contribute to desegregation and supporting political leaders who promote desegregation. Public officials could be more cognizant of the ways school rezoning policies structurally privilege some residents over others and consider diverse perspectives regarding the impact of current rezoning approaches. Linking education policy to land use policy is a necessary cross-sector strategy to undo generations of harm from segregation. ▀
Ariel H. Bierbaum (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Assistant Professor in the Urban Studies and Planning Program at the University of Maryland.
Gail L. Sunderman (email@example.com) is a Research Associate with The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at the University of California Los Angeles.
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