Much of the conversation about school segregation in America is about how to lessen segregation within a school district, ensuring students of all races in the same district can study together in the same school.
That’s the kind of policy Joe Biden opposed in the 1970s, which he was called out for during the first Democratic presidential debates. These policies tried to ban federal courts from forcing districts to bus children from one neighborhood to another to desegregate schools.
But many districts are so segregated that they can’t be integrated just by moving students around within their borders. School district boundaries that draw a sharp line between two separate and unequal districts — one majority-white and well-funded, one nonwhite and underfunded — are quite common in the United States.
Here’s the border that separates two school districts in Connecticut — Lebanon and Windham.
Lebanon is 90 percent white, and it spends about $22,000 per pupil each year. Windham is about 25 percent white, and it spends $3,000 less per pupil than Lebanon.
There are nearly 1,000 borders like this in the US, according to a new report from the education nonprofit EdBuild. It looked for bordering districts where there was at least a 25 percentage-point gap in white students, as well as at least a 10 percent gap in funding.
On the disadvantaged side of the border, there are nearly 9 million students who attend schools that are, on average, 65 percent nonwhite. These schools received about $13,000 per pupil.
On the advantaged side, there are nearly 3 million students who attend schools that are, on average, 25 percent nonwhite. These schools receive about $17,000 per pupil.
And there are about 133 borders that are extremely unequal, with a 50 percentage-point difference in nonwhite students and a 20 percent funding gap.
By talking about integration only in the context of what happens within school districts, “We’re missing an entire part of this debate,” EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia said.
Truly integrated schools would require integration between districts. But 45 years ago, the courts made this exceedingly hard.
Is your district one of the disadvantaged? Or advantaged?
The map below shows every American district on either side of one of these borders.
We’ve zoomed into your area to give you a better look, but you can explore the entire US.
A quick data note: A small number of districts border at least one district that is significantly more advantaged and one that is significantly more disadvantaged, so they are in both categories.
When we zoom out to the national level, it might seem like these unequal borders are relatively rare. But American geography is highly concentrated around cities.
So these disadvantaged districts — colored in maroon — serve more than 1 in 6 public school students.
The Supreme Court made this racial segregation extremely hard to overcome
Let’s consider the case of two hypothetical districts that border each other.
These are especially common because of the large number of white families that left city centers in the decades after the Supreme Court integrated schools in 1954.
The desegregation busing that Biden opposed looked something like this:
These kinds of plans were incredibly effective at desegregating schools.
Looking at today’s segregation patterns, a truly effective desegregation plan would involve some students attending school in a neighboring district.
But in the 1974 case Milliken v. Bradley, the Supreme Court ruled that school districts didn’t have to desegregate across district lines if the lines weren’t drawn with racist intent. This meant that these borders between districts could be used as political fences — an analogy Justice Thurgood Marshall used in his dissent — to resist desegregation efforts.
In the 1970s, the decision fueled the “white flight” from cities to suburbs. Forty years later, as formerly white districts diversify, some families and schools are seceding from their districts and creating their own, essentially gerrymandering mostly white and wealthier households into their borders.
The way America funds schools makes these unequal borders inevitable
The starting point for American school funding is local property taxes, which accounts for about 45 percent of the money. This means funding is deeply tied to wealth.
Then state governments distribute money to local districts, which accounts for another 45 percent. The remaining 10 percent is from the federal government.
States often give a lot more to poorer districts in an attempt to equalize funding. But that doesn’t necessarily come close to giving enough funding to poor districts, which often require more money to educate students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Also, when economic downturns happen, one of the first places state governments cut is school funding. This was one of the root causes of the teacher strikes last year.
Below, you can see how funding breaks down for each state. What it doesn’t show is how, within a state, some districts will get very little funding from the state, while others get a lot:
Where does education funding come from, by state
|District of Columbia||8.9%||–||91.1%|
Data from the National Education Association
Where 2020 candidates stand
School segregation became a surprise topic of the 2020 Democratic presidential debates when Sen. Kamala Harris called out Biden’s anti-busing efforts.
But even so, school desegregation isn’t always the easiest policy area for candidates.
When Harris was asked about whether desegregation busing was necessary today, she told the Washington Post’s Chelsea Janes that we don’t need it now. And she punted on any federal policy ideas on this front: “So for local school districts, for municipalities, I am in favor of whatever they need to do work on integration based on race.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders has released an education plan that addresses desegregation, creating a federal grant program to support magnet schools and saying he’ll focus on appointing judges who will enforce the 1964 Civil Right Act. My colleague Matt Yglesias sees this as a promise to try to force challenges to Milliken and the 2007 Parents Involved case, which barred districts from using an individual student’s race to assign the student to a school.
In her 2004 book The Two-Income Trap, Elizabeth Warren, then a law professor at Harvard, has expressed support for an all-voucher system that would unlink neighborhoods from schools, but it’s unclear if she still supports this as a senator and 2020 candidate. And former HUD Secretary Julián Castro’s plan doesn’t address school district borders or school assignment, but rather housing segregation, the root cause of segregated schools. (For more on 2020 candidates’ plans, read Yglesias’s explainer.)
Often when we talk about racial segregation in schools, there’s the abstract premise that students of color don’t get as many resources as white students. But the results may be visible just a few miles away, across an invisible fence.