Apr 24, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Strict school zones are reinforcing inequality, new study finds

Stephanie Nava-Moreno, a seventh grader, rests at Strive Sunnyside charter school in northwest Denver amid a fight over school boundaries in 2015.

Seventh grader Stephanie Nava-Moreno rests at Strive Sunnyside charter school in northwest Denver amid a fight over school boundaries in 2015. Photo: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Rigid school attendance zones allow districts to legally keep many students of color and low-income families out of coveted, elite K-12 public schools, a new study finds.

Why it matters: The U.S. will soon mark the 70th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended legal segregation in public schools. Yet, researchers found growing inequality in school access as the nation has become more diverse, according to the new study by nonpartisan education watchdog Available to All.

  • School segregation between Black and white students has returned to 1968 levels.

Driving the news: American families have weak legal protections around public school access, according to the study.

  • Researchers found that legal discrimination and non-neutral enrollment policies — rules that allow districts to use addresses or selective criteria for admission — are common and enshrined in state laws.
  • School officials exploit loopholes to cherry-pick students and even criminally prosecute low-income families that try to send their children to elite public schools outside of their assigned boundaries, the report said.

Zoom in: The report found examples of loopholes involving parents forced to pay "tuition" for their child to attend a public school outside their district of residence.

  • Individual public schools also can be captured by interest groups or small groups of parents.
  • The report found that a top-ranked Tampa, Florida, school remained extremely exclusive, operating an attendance zone that mirrors the racist redlining map from 1936 and excluding many low-income kids who live nearby.

How it works: School districts set boundaries and assign schools generally connected to families' neighborhoods.

  • All 50 states and the District of Columbia allow or require school assignments to be based on students' residential addresses.
  • Because wealthier families have privileged access to the best public schools via "educational redlining" according to the report, it is often difficult for other schools to attract these families, creating a vast inequality of resources.

Zoom in: An Axios review of the Albuquerque Public School district in New Mexico found that the coveted La Cueva High School, located in the city's white, wealthy Northeast Heights, offered an array of AP classes and had several booster clubs.

  • Meanwhile, Rio Grande High School in the city's poor, predominantly Hispanic South Valley had few AP classes and struggled to provide any college prep courses.
  • District officials have said the AP classes offered are about demand and the district allows students to transfer to other schools.

Behind the scenes: To enforce boundaries, the report said some school districts hire private detectives to find parents who are trying to send their children to elite schools outside of their assigned zone.

  • The report highlighted the case of Ohio mother Kelley Williams-Bolar, who was convicted in 2011 of lying about her residency to get her daughters into a better school district and spent nine days in jail.

What they're saying: "Linda Brown was denied entry into one school based on race. Today, she could be denied entry legally on other factors," Tim DeRoche, founder and president of Available to All, tells Axios, referring to the key figure in the 1954 Brown decision.

  • "When a school like this turns away a kid, the family has very little legal legal recourse right now."
  • DeRoche said the report found nearby schools in cities like Chicago separated by an attendance zone line but with wide achievement gaps and completely different student populations based on race.

What's next: Available to All recommends that states enact laws protecting families seeking enrollment and that public schools collect and report data on admissions and enrollment.

  • The group also recommends that school districts reduce the importance of geography and exclusionary maps.

Methodology: Available to All reviewed each stateʼs education laws (constitutions, statutes, and significant court rulings) to classify them on 24 indicators.

  • It then grouped indicators into six categories: statewide laws, laws governing traditional public school enrollment, laws governing within-district open enrollment, laws governing cross-district open enrollment, laws governing charter school enrollment and laws governing magnet school enrollment.
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