A new report has identified America's 50 most-unequal neighboring school districts, showing how two students just blocks from each other can attend schools of vastly different qualities, merely because they are on different sides of a district.
The list, compiled by educational nonprofit EdBuild, gives new meaning to the concept of growing up on the wrong side of the tracks—especially because the figurative tracks were in most cases explicitly put there to separate one group from another. The districts are concentrated in places like Milwaukee, Cleveland, Dayton, Detroit and Flint—areas that have been subjected to decades of neglect amid white flight, not to mention legally sanctioned segregation.
These unequal districts are largely the product of a 1974 Supreme Court decision, Milliken v. Bradley. In that case, the Court ruled that the racial makeup of a school district would be determined by the inhabitants living in it. If a school district happened to cover areas that were largely white or largely black, localities were under no obligation to make the schools within that district more racially diverse. So when the racial makeup of the district suddenly changed, for instance, as a result of white flight, school districts with access to vastly more resources were suddenly juxtaposed against ones with almost nothing.
"This outcome cleared the way for district borders to be used as lawful tools of segregation," EdBuild wrote in the report.
While many states give school districts the option of accepting students from neighboring districts, the suburban districts surrounding high-poverty big cities are often conspicuously absent from the list of school districts enrolling in such programs, EducationPost reports, .
"Policymakers have advanced 'open-enrollment' policies as a purported means of building bridges for low-income students to escape segregating borders and attend schools in more prosperous communities," the site, which also documented EdBuild's findings, wrote. "But the policy fails when surrounding districts are given the option to raise a proverbial drawbridge—negating the value of the policy itself."
Studies have shown that school district quality is the top factor for parents when they choose where to buy a home. Most public schools are paid for through local property taxes, something that causes school quality and home values to become linked.
It is this issue, and not dissolving the boundaries, that should now be addressed, EdBuild's Rebecca Sibilia said in an email.
Rather, EdBuild's Rebecca Sibilia advocates for replacing the local property tax funding system with statewide property taxes that could be used to more equitably distribute funds.
"The relationship between property values and education funding is only harmful, and only motivates wealthy communities to self-segregate, when property tax revenues all stay local to the school districts where they are raised," she said in an emailw.
At least one parent in a high-poverty district agrees, saying she'd prefer to improve the quality of the district she already lives in than move her child.
“I want my daughter to be in DPS, because I want all DPS schools to have all the same benefits as other schools,” Bernita Bradley, a Detroit resident, told CityLab. “We want the same kinds of libraries, the same after-school programs, the same kinds of textbooks. And we deserve them.”
Below are the top-9 neighboring districts with the largest poverty gaps. The poverty rates for each district are in parentheses. The red lines show approximately where one district ends and another begins. Try to imagine yourself crossing the street and entering a whole other universe…
1. Grosse Pointe, Mich. (7%) and Detroit, Mich. (49%)
2. Birmingham, Ala. (49%) and Vestavia Hills, Mich. (6%)
3. Birmingham, Ala. (49%) and Mountain Brook, Ala. (7%)
4. Clairton, Penn. (48%) and West Jefferson Hills, Penn. (7%) [south of Pittsburgh]
5. Dayton, Ohio (47%) and Beavercreek (7%)
6. Balsz Elementary, Ariz. (51%) and Scottsdale Unified, Ariz. (11%)
7. Dayton, Ohio (47%) and Oakwood (7%)
8. Youngstown, Ohio (46%) and Poland Local (7%)
9. Sheridan, Colo. (49%) and Littleton, Colo. (9%)
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.