Want More Equitable Schools? Look at Housing and District Boundary Policies.

In a new report, Alex Spurrier, Sara Hodges, and I outline the very real impact of policy decisions across housing, funding, and education, made at all levels of government. 

In Priced Out of Public Schools: District Lines, Housing Access, and Inequitable Educational Options, how district boundaries are drawn and where accessible housing is located means that low-income families are priced out of some school districts and segregated from more affluent families. This isn’t only exclusion from certain public schools, but also exclusion from academic opportunities (such as magnet schools or Advanced Placement courses) and extracurricular activities. 

In looking at the 200 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, we found nearly 500 “barrier borders” across the country that have deep funding implications:

  • 12.8 million students live in districts with a high concentration of low-income housing and generate $6,355 per-pupil less in school funding from local, state, and federal sources than their affluent peers in districts with inaccessible housing.
  • Districts with inaccessible housing have an average of $4,664 more per-pupil than the “average” district, while districts with accessible housing have $1,691 less per-pupil than the “average” district.

This work joins a cadre of important studies and news media coverage on how seemingly random boundaries and borders are actually deliberate policy decisions. (Check out the Urban Institute’s latest study on within-district attendance boundaries and race, as well as the archives from EdBuild.)

Simply put, this is an intentional policy decision — sometimes made decades ago, but not always. We can also intentionally address it.

If we want equitable schools, I’ve long argued for making funding more equitable

The radical, but swift policy solution would be to decouple the real estate market from school funding, allowing local property taxes to play a minimal role in funding schools (if at all). Instead, states could create a state-funded education system (essentially replacing local funding) and distribute that funding equitably and based on student needs. 

Alternatively, if the policy landscape makes replacing local property taxes nearly impossible, states could seriously invest their dollars in leveling the playing field so that communities with higher property values do not continue to systematically disadvantage lower-income communities. 

There are also ways to fiddle around the ends if using property taxes for school funding continues, including the state limiting how much property taxes can be used locally and redistributing any amounts over the cap.

But changing funding isn’t the only avenue to pursue. States and locales could simply eliminate the mismatch between school district boundaries and city or county limits. It’s hard to imagine a rationale for one city, such as greater Chicago, to have 353 districts (and 45 barrier borders). Which also makes it hard to imagine what the rationale of these policies might be, if not the resulting exclusion of some families from some schools and resources. States with the highest number of school districts also tend to have the greatest number of barrier borders: eight of the 10 states that account for 70% of the nation’s barrier borders also rank in the top 10 states for highest number of school districts. Some metropolitan areas may be too big to have one mega-school district, but drawing boundary lines to explicitly divide communities based on income is inequitable and wrong.

Finally, there is a role that the federal government can play, and that’s in housing policy. At a baseline, there should be more low-income housing in more communities. The reality is that the need for low-income housing far outpaces the supply of affordable options, and sequestering low-income families together (particularly when physically far from important educational and other resources) is inequitable.

With the infusion of funds from the federal government, now is the time to reexamine and redraw what may seem like random funding, housing, and boundary decisions that are far from random. They are indeed intentional. The question is, can we be intentional about creating a more equitable landscape?

Priced Out of Public Schools: District Lines, Housing Access, and Inequitable Educational Options is part of an ongoing Bellwether examination of how finance and inequity in education shortchange millions of students and families.

 

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