Lake County is home to half of the 14 most “segregating” school district boundaries in Indiana, according to a new report from EdBuild, a nonprofit group that addresses equity and school funding.
The report shows how school districts are often drawn in ways that divide affluent communities from low-income and more racially diverse areas right next door. It focuses on economic, not racial, segregation, but notes that the two types of segregation often go hand in hand.
“When school district borders cordon students into very high-poverty districts on one side of an arbitrary line, they thereby preserve unnaturally low-poverty districts on the other side, causing massive gaps in opportunity,” the authors write.
The report highlights the nation’s 50 most segregating borders, those that divide adjacent districts with the largest differences in poverty for school-age children. No Indiana borders make the top 50 list, although some are close. Many are in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and the Deep South.
The report, “Fault Lines: America’s Most Segregating School District Borders,” relies on census estimates of poverty from 2017, the most recent data available. It argues that district borders aren’t set in stone and could be changed to create more diverse and less segregated schools. Unfortunately, the current trend seems to be the oppose: affluent communities seceding from high-poverty districts.
In Indiana, the report finds 14 borders separating districts with differences in poverty of 20 percentage points or more. The most segregating border is between two Lake County districts: Lake Ridge Schools, where the student-age poverty rate is 37%, and Lake Central School Corp., where the rate is 6%.
Gary Community Schools has three of the state’s most segregating district boundaries: with Merrillville, Portage Township and Hobart schools. Other most segregating boundaries in Lake County are between East Chicago and Whiting schools, Hammond and Munster schools, and Lake Ridge and Griffith schools.
Lake County, in Indiana’s northwestern corner, is a large and diverse county with a significant population. Still, the fact that it has 16 school districts seems hard to justify.
Apart from Lake County, Indiana’s most segregating borders separate Wayne Township (Indianapolis) from Avon and Brownsburg schools, Anderson schools from South Madison and Mount Pleasant schools, Marion schools from Oak Hill and Eastbrook schools, and South Adams schools from Southern Wells schools.
The three districts with the highest school-age poverty rates in Indiana are in Lake County: East Chicago, Gary and Lake Ridge. Conversely, 13 of the 14 districts with the lowest poverty rates are in suburban counties that surround Indianapolis. Those districts are near but not adjacent to the Indianapolis Public Schools district, which has the state’s fifth-highest poverty rate.
Census data may be a more precise measure of poverty than the percentage of children who receive free or reduced-price school meals, the usual indicator of student disadvantage. But it can misrepresent school poverty. That’s because, in many Indiana districts, large numbers of children don’t attend local public schools but enroll in charter or private schools or nearby public districts.
In Gary, for example, just over a third of school-age children attend Gary Community School Corp. schools, according to an Indiana Department of Education report. More Gary students attend charter schools than attend local district schools. A significant number transfer to neighboring public schools.
Then there’s the example of South Adams Schools. According to census data, the geographical district has one of the highest student-age poverty rates in the state. But the percentage of students in South Adams Schools who qualify for free and reduced-price school meals is below the state average.
One possible explanation: A large population of Amish families who live in the district and send their children to Amish schools or home-school them. If many of those families are classified by the Census Bureau as below the poverty line, it would skew the district’s poverty rate.
The report supplements a July 2019 study from EdBuild that identified nearly 1,000 school district boundaries – including 30 in Indiana — that separate “advantaged” from “disadvantaged” school districts.