We must redraw the invisible lines that make or break our schools

It’s easy to overlook the invisible, though often quite intentional, lines drawn in America that maintain economic and racial segregation. 

Consider housing. Choices made by homebuyers and renters, zoning regulations and policies and programs to support low-income housing effectively separate communities physically, between enclaves of wealth and pockets of poverty. It’s in part a legacy of deliberate and intentional segregation rooted in race that persists in communities today.  

Now consider schools. One look at real estate listings highlights that some public schools are deemed more desirable than others. Assessing what drives perceptions of quality and opportunity across schools is complex, caught up in how Americans measure and understand what makes schools “good.”  

Across the country, the vast majority of public schools are organized into school districts — geographic boundaries that determine who is eligible to attend the schools within them. Districts serve as administrative hubs for their schools, centralizing functions such as accounting, transportation and human resources, to enable schools to focus on the instruction and well-being of students. But not all school districts are created equal. 

The size and shape of school districts vary significantly state-to-state and community-to-community. In the northeast, states tend to have many geographically small school districts: New Jersey has 540 school districts serving 1.3 million students. Contrast that with North Carolina, a state nearly five times the geographic size of New Jersey, which has 115 mostly countywide school districts for 1.4 million students. Despite serving nearly the same number of students, New Jersey has more than four times the number of school districts.  

In the south, states tend to match school district boundaries with county lines, one significant step toward equity. But recent moves in southern communities have created the kind of gerrymandering seen in the northeast and elsewhere in the country. Memphis-area towns in Shelby County, Tenn., have seceded from a county-based district, creating a more northeastern-style patchwork quilt. 

Why care how big or small school districts are, how they’re drawn and how many students are served? One big reason is funding.  

Local property taxes make up a substantial portion of school funding for most U.S. public schools — in many cases, those local tax revenues make up the largest share of school funding. The amount of local tax revenue a district can access is a function of the taxable value of homes and commercial property in the district and the tax rate. So differences in the value of property or tax rates can drive substantial differences in the resources available to schools to educate students.  

The districts low-income families can access tend to have much less funding, largely driven by access to local funds. In the 200 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, school districts with little or no affordable rental housing raise an average of $8,663 more in per-pupil revenue from local sources when compared to districts with high concentrations of affordable rental housing, according to our research. That’s more than forcing some districts to do more with less, it translates to fewer supports and programming for students. 

This challenge is neither exclusively a problem of housing, nor one of education, and it won’t be solved by tackling just one of these areas.  

When it comes to drawing lines, removing gerrymandered borders can enable more equal tax bases among school districts. Southern states where county and district borders match provide an example: The disparities in resources, both in housing and school funding, are significantly reduced in this model. But changing district boundaries is easier said than done. In most cases, each of those districts is governed by an independently elected board and employs numerous administrators and staff that become redundant if multiple small districts collapse into one larger district. These adult interests are powerful headwinds to changes to boundaries, even where potential cost savings and improved equity can result.

Another avenue is for states to eliminate local property tax in school funding or compensate districts with lower taxable values. Mitigating the impact of variation in local tax bases enables the same access to revenues regardless of local taxable values, without less wealthy areas having to tax their communities at higher rates.  

These bold but politically unpopular strategies heighten conversations about wealth, access and who gets to have opportunities when it comes to housing and education. It’s not easy to confront these invisible lines all around us. But doing so is an essential part of ensuring that every student has equitable access to education resources and that the growing concern about inequality actually has policy changes behind it.  

Jennifer O’Neal Schiess is a partner and Alex Spurrier is an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners in its Policy and Evaluation practice area. 

Tags Education in the United States Local government Property tax Race and education in the United States school district School segregation in the United States Structural inequality in education

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