The Most Economically Segregated School District Boundaries in the Country


A new study shows the majority of income segregation is happening between, not within, school districts.

Barbed-wire fence

A new study shows the majority of income segregation is happening between, not within, school districts.

Image via spDuchamp Image via Flickr user spDuchamp.

There is growing evidence that the country's worsening income segregation is, in part, linked to wealthy families choosing where to live based on school quality -- a reality most any parent searching for a home recognizes.

But the divides are not just within a single district. A new study from nonprofit, education funding-focused group EdBuild, has found that "the majority of income segregation in schools is based on sorting between districts rather than within them." High-poverty schools districts, the study found, end up with less funding per pupil on average, largely because property taxes are often linked to school funding.

Worst in the Rust Belt

The study, "Fault Lines: America's Most Segregating School District Borders," looked at differences in childhood poverty rates and charted the biggest gaps between neighboring school districts. The 50 most "segregating borders," as the study calls them, were concentrated in only 14 states, starting with Ohio, which had nine, and followed by Alabama with seven. Overall, the study found that many of the worst divides were in Rust Belt cities, a phenomenon the authors attributed to worsening economic disparities due to deindustrialization in the region. "States with countywide school districts," reads the report, "like those in the South and the West, are almost entirely absent from the list."

Topping the list was Detroit City School District, with a childhood poverty rate of 49 percent, and its neighboring Grosse Pointe Public Schools, a much smaller district with only a 7 percent childhood poverty rate.

Unsurprisingly, Detroit was the city behind the 1974 Milliken v. Bradley U.S. Supreme Court Case, in which the court narrowly ruled that, in this case, white, wealthy suburban school district had no responsibility to the high-poverty, majority-African-American city school district it neighbored. And because it was a different school district entirely, the stark segregation was not a matter for court intervention.

Segregation in the South and race

While many cities experienced a similar divide as white families fled to the suburbs, whites in Southern cities also looked to private schools to resist integration in the wake of Brown v. Board, part of the reason disparities in the South may not show up as obviously between public school districts.

Indeed, Kinder Institute Fellow Heather O'Connell found that black-white disparities in public school enrollment were worst in counties that once had high concentrations of slaves. Also of note, the South exhibited a very different history of residential segregation than the North, as Angelina Grigoryeva and Martin Ruef demonstrate in their analysis of nearly 200 cities and towns. In many Southern cities it was not uncommon for black and white residences to be in close proximity while still remaining segregated, what the researchers termed "a more subtle 'backyard' form of segregation."

And though the report from EdBuild looks at income segregation, other studies have confirmed increasing racial segregation between cities and their suburbs. A recent study of 222 metro areas, "Toward a New Macro- Segregation? Decomposing Segregation within and between Metropolitan Cities and Suburbs," notes that even as cities and nearby suburbs become more diverse, white communities continue to find ways to segregate themselves, moving to "the open countryside, unincorporated housing developments, and gated communities." That study also found that some of the worst black-white and Hispanic-white segregation occurred in older Rust Belt Cities. And instead of racial segregation within cities, the authors described "emerging patterns of macro-segregation, that is, to the sorting of racial and ethnic groups between places within U.S. metropolitan areas."

Large local divides

According to the report from EdBuild, the average difference in childhood poverty rate between bordering school districts was just 7 percentage points nationally. Among the 50 most segregated pairs of districts, the average difference was 37 percentage points.

None of the 50 most divided pairs of districts were located in Texas, but an analysis of local districts found there are significant differences, for both childhood poverty rates and the percentage of economically disadvantaged students, between districts in the Houston area.

Houston ISD, for example, has a childhood poverty rate of 37 percent, and 76.4 of its students are considered economically disadvantaged, according to district data from 2014 from the Texas Education Agency. That's compared to Katy ISD to the west, which has a childhood poverty rate of 8.4 percent and where only 28.3 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged -- nearly a 30-point gap, well above the 7-point national average between neighboring districts.

Article continues below map.

Divided Districts: Economic Disparities Between Houston School Districts

Map by Leah Binkovitz
Source: American Community Survey 2014 5-Year Estimates, Texas Education Agency 2014 District Snapshots

Similar differences emerge when looking at the race of bordering districts. Alief ISD, which has the second highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students of the 14 Houston-area school districts, has a student body that is 30.5 percent black. Next door, Katy ISD's student population is only 9.5 black, according to the most recent data available from the Texas Education Agency.

But the divide isn't as clear as suburb versus city, perhaps unsurprising for a sprawling city whose territory isn't always even contiguous. To the east of Houston, districts largely outside the city but in industrial areas like Galena Park and Sheldon have high percentages of economically disadvantaged students. And one of the biggest divides is between Aldine and Humble ISD, both of which lie partly outside the city of Houston. Aldine ISD has a childhood poverty rate of 41.9 percent, compared to Humble's of just 10.2 percent.

Clearly, Houston's suburbs tell more than one story about income equality and reflect the growing suburbanization of poverty. Between 1970 and 2012, the population of poor people living in Houston suburbs increased 10.5 percent, according to Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution.

And though the Houston metro area is lauded for its diversity, there's also evidence that many districts don't always reflect the demographics of the area they serve possibly because some categories of residents are opting for private or home school options instead. In all of the Houston-are districts but one -- Galena Park ISD -- the population of white, student-age children is larger than the population of white students enrolled in the public school district. In the small municipality of Stafford, for example, though 21.1 percent of all school-age children living there are white, its school district is only 4.8 percent white.

Houston isn't the only Texas metro with big wealth divides. According to the EdBuild report the average difference in childhood poverty rates between bordering districts in the state was 7.7 percentage points, near the national average.

But several are well above that. Dallas ISD, which surrounds the tiny Highland Park ISD, has a childhood poverty rate of 38.8 percent, according to the most recent estimates from the American Community Survey. Highland Park ISD's childhood poverty rate is more than 35 percentage points lower at 3.4 percent. And that doesn't take into account the income levels of students who actually attend public schools versus private schools. Meanwhile in Austin, Austin ISD had a childhood poverty rate of 29.1 percent while the smaller Eanes ISD, to the west of Austin ISD, has a childhood poverty rate of just 4.5 percent. And in San Antonio, the district behind several state Supreme Court cases protesting unequal funding and the reliance on property taxes, Edgewood ISD, has a childhood poverty rate of 49.1 percent, compared to its neighbor, Lackland ISD, with a childhood poverty rate of 15.2 percent, according to census numbers.

At the state level, Texas funding formulas do attempt to account for the disparities between districts by weighing the number of economically disadvantaged students more heavily. But the amount of weight given has repeatedly been challenged in court as insufficient, most recently in a case decided in favor of the state in May. But the report from EdBuild shows that income segregation between districts is linked to disparities in school funding as well across the country.

"These divisions are harmful for all students, but especially for those who reside on the wrong side of these borders," argues the report. "In effect, school district boundaries have become the new status quo for separate but unequal."

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