School boundaries carry on ‘legacy of redlining’

Racist housing maps from the 1930s and ‘40s are still having an impact by way of today’s segregated school attendance zones, according to a new study from the Urban Institute.

The “Dividing Lines” study finds that school attendance areas often align with “redlining” maps from the Home Owners’ Loan Corp., a New Deal home-buying program. Black neighborhoods were marked in red on the maps to indicate they were not a good risk for buyers and lenders.

“This evidence suggests that many of the racially unequal school boundaries in our data are direct vestiges of our cities’ historic roots of explicit racism, not just an artifact of recent individual household choices,” write study authors Tomas Monarrez and Carina Chien.

Of course, school officials have had decades to redraw attendance areas in a more equitable fashion. But in many cases, they have chosen not to address the issue.

The link to redlining is one finding from the study, which uses school and census data to analyze school boundaries in metropolitan areas and the largest U.S. school districts. While the study says the “lion’s share” of segregation results from differences between school districts, it shines a light on segregation within districts. Redrawing district attendance zones would reduce segregation and would be easier than reconfiguring school districts, the authors say.

The study uses “microgeography” techniques to home in on school boundary lines that separate mostly white areas from predominantly Black or Hispanic areas. An analysis finds that schools on the Black or Hispanic side of the dividing lines have less experienced teachers, lower test scores and higher rates of suspension, expulsion and absenteeism than schools on the white side.

In Indiana, the study flags seven examples of boundaries that separate schools with widely different percentages of white and Black or Hispanic students. Two of the pairs are within districts (Indianapolis Public Schools and Fort Wayne Community Schools) and five are in different districts in and around Indianapolis.

The study notes that nearly all school districts have attendance zones that influence where students attend school. But the rise of school choice, present in most of the districts, complicates the analysis. Choice programs may let students attend schools outside of their own zip codes, the authors say, but they don’t seem to have led to less segregation.

It’s easy to think of examples segregated “schools of choice.” At Center for Inquiry School 84, an Indianapolis Public Schools magnet school, only 7.6% of students are Black or Hispanic and only 5.8% qualify for free or reduced-price meals. At nearby neighborhood schools, most students are Black or Hispanic and most qualify for free or reduced meals.

We can also cite examples where attendance districts are the issue. In Bloomington, Indiana, where I live, there aren’t enough Black or Hispanic students to trigger a finding of segregation in the Urban Institute study, but there is longstanding economic segregation. The attendance area for Fairview Elementary School, where 86% of students qualify for free or reduced meals, is contiguous with Binford-Rogers, where 18% qualify. The area for Templeton Elementary, where 59% qualify, is adjacent to Childs, where 9% qualify.

What the authors say about schools segregated by race could be adapted to apply to schools segregated by family income:

“Local policymakers have had plenty of opportunities to break the link between school assignment policy and the vestiges of racism in our cities. Our findings … suggest that many have chosen not to do so.”


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