The extent to which school boundaries foster or hinder efforts at enhancing school diversity depends on the motivation and political will of district leadership.
By Meredith P. Richards
In May, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down congressional districts in North Carolina, finding that their boundaries had been unconstitutionally gerrymandered along racial lines. The court held that the Republican-led General Assembly had intentionally engineered contorted and geographically incoherent districts to reduce the influence of black voters. Similar cases are being litigated across the country, including in Texas, where a federal court ruled in August that two Texas congressional districts were drawn in a racially discriminatory fashion and diluted the voting power of Hispanic voters.
School boundaries have been gerrymandered in much the same way as these contentious political boundaries. Indeed, neighborhood school zones — rather than reflecting natural, cohesive communities — are often highly gerrymandered into irregular shapes. Whereas political gerrymandering consolidates political power and reduces the voting power of minorities, the gerrymandering of educational boundaries generally fosters inequities in access to educational opportunities and worsens already severe levels of racial segregation in public schools.
But gerrymandering can also be used as a powerful and legally viable mechanism to foster equity and diversity, when such efforts are supported by the will and creativity of local school leaders. A handful of districts nationwide have adopted creative strategies for achieving racial diversity through boundaries and assignment strategies that explicitly take geography into consideration.
With my colleague Kori Stroub, I have used geospatial techniques — mapping various kinds of demographic data onto educational boundaries — to examine public school attendance zones and their effect on students. What we discovered through our research demonstrates how the redrawing of boundaries can produce very different results depending on the intention of district leadership.
The importance of school attendance zones
Despite the recent emphasis on public school choice, most students in the U.S. still attend the traditional public school to which they are assigned based on where they live. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics reveal that public school choice options were only available to 37% of children in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available. Moreover, 87% of students attended their zoned public school. Even in Houston Independent School District, which offers districtwide choice, an extensive magnet school portfolio, and transportation to all choice schools, more than three-quarters of all students attend their zoned school. As such, traditional attendance zones remain the primary determinants of educational opportunity for most American public schoolchildren.
Reflecting the abiding tradition of local control of education, school districts generally draw their own attendance zones, with school boards making the final zoning decisions after hearing recommendations from the superintendent and district demographers and subjecting them to public review and input. Boards review and modify these boundaries frequently, particularly in districts facing rapid growth or declining student enrollment.
Given that attendance zones are key gatekeepers of educational opportunity, it is not surprising that these boundaries are prized and fiercely contested. According to NCES, 19% of students’ families report selecting their neighborhood specifically for the local public school. In addition, parents are often willing to pay a steep premium for their desired school. For example, in West Philadelphia, parents pay as much as $100,000 more for property just inside the coveted Penn Alexander school zone. While modifying existing school boundaries is often necessary to accommodate demographic changes and population growth, such changes are often met with resistance. In Loudoun County, Va., one of the nation’s most affluent school districts, hundreds of concerned parents flooded public forums dressed in color-coded shirts to protest the proposed rezoning of school boundaries. In rare cases, parents may even be willing to break the law so their child can attend certain schools. In recent high-profile cases in Ohio, Connecticut, Kentucky, and Missouri, parents have faced criminal charges of “educational theft” for falsifying their place of residence to send their children to “better” schools.
Gerrymandering educational boundaries generally fosters inequities in access to educational opportunities and worsens already severe levels of racial segregation in public schools.
Despite the importance of attendance zones, surprisingly little research has examined them directly. At the local level, school district personnel, parents, and even real estate agents often have extensive knowledge of their community’s zones. Until recently, however, data on these boundaries were not routinely collected or reported in a way that was accessible to researchers. Fortunately, recent efforts to collect and disseminate large-scale data on attendance zones have made such research possible. Since 2010, NCES has collected and disseminated attendance zone boundaries biennially through its School Attendance Boundary System.
School zones are highly gerrymandered
Historically, the courts have approached the diagnosis of political gerrymandering much as they approach pornography: As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously observed, “I know it when I see it.” Fortunately, political science researchers have developed objective mathematical measures to quantify gerrymandering beyond Stewart’s subjective standard. The most common of these measures compare the perimeter of the district to its area. Districts with concavities and protuberances tend to have longer perimeters and are deemed more gerrymandered than equivalent-sized districts with smoother boundaries and shorter perimeters.
In a recent study, we applied techniques similar to those that have been used to measure political gerrymanders to quantify the severity of gerrymandering of about 24,000 attendance zones from the 2009-10 school year (Richards & Stroub, 2015).
Figure 2 visually summarizes our findings using three actual elementary school zones. The yellow zone in the center, for a school in Texas, reflects the average level of gerrymandering nationally. While certainly less gerrymandered than North Carolina’s 12th congressional district, this attendance zone is still highly irregular. The red zone on the right represents a more extreme case of gerrymandering. The unusual shape of this zone, for a school in North Carolina, is highly indented and clearly does not conform to geographic boundaries or reflect a coherent geographic neighborhood. About one in 10 attendance zones are more gerrymandered than this zone. A substantial minority of attendance zones are quite compact and regular, like the blue attendance zone on the left, for a school in Indiana. About nine of 10 attendance zones are more gerrymandered than this zone.
Readers may observe that although North Carolina’s 12th congressional district as seen in Figure 1 is extremely irregular, it is a single contiguous shape. Someone could travel from any point in the district to any other point in the district without leaving the district. This is because North Carolina and 48 other states require that voting districts are contiguous (with certain exceptions, such as islands). However, most states have no such laws regarding school attendance zones; it is exceedingly common, as in the North Carolina attendance zone pictured here, for attendance zones to be comprised of multiple, disconnected areas. In this way, attendance zones are considerably more gerrymandered than congressional districts.
Gerrymandering worsens school racial segregation
As with political gerrymandering, the historical record abounds with examples of attendance zones being gerrymandered in a racially discriminatory fashion. As sociologist Gunnar Myrdal observed more than 70 years ago, “School boundaries . . . are usually set at the boundary of the white and Negro neighborhoods” (1944). After Brown v. Board of Education, districts in the South often responded to pressure to desegregate by drawing attendance zones demarcating black and white neighborhoods so as to undermine integration efforts. Such practices were not limited to the South: Northern school districts often achieved de facto segregation by drawing boundaries to maintain racial separation. Coupled with other methods of resistance, gerrymandered boundaries helped maintain dual educational systems for white and black students through the 1970s.
My research suggests that gerrymandering continues to perpetuate segregation in schools today (Richards, 2014). To assess the effects of gerrymandering on segregation, I compared the racial composition of actual school attendance zones to the racial composition of the “ideal” school attendance zones that would be expected in the absence of gerrymandering. I constructed these ideal attendance zones using a conceptually straightforward rule: Each student is assigned to attend the school closest to his or her home.
On average, across all 15,000 attendance zones I studied, gerrymandered boundaries increase segregation beyond what would be expected if all students attended their closest school. This is true for all dimensions of racial and ethnic segregation studied, including between black and white students and between Hispanic and white students. Interestingly, though, the effect is particularly strong when it comes to separating Asian and white students from one another: While the effect of gerrymandering on black-white and Hispanic-white segregation is significant, its effect on Asian-white segregation is four times greater.
Given the pernicious history and persistence of black-white and Hispanic-white segregation in public schools, it is perhaps surprising that gerrymandering plays a relatively minor role in the continued segregation of these groups, while having such a large effect on Asian-white segregation. However, bear in mind that attendance zones can only segregate students who live in the same school district. Today, most segregation is at the district level — e.g., few black students live in predominantly white districts and vice versa. As such, attendance zones have less potential to segregate these groups. Conversely, Asian students are more likely than black students to live in the same school districts as white students. Thus, it follows that school boundaries are particularly salient to the segregation of Asian and white students.
While gerrymandering increases segregation overall, it is particularly severe in districts experiencing rapid increases in racial diversity. Consider the case of Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia. Over the past half-century, Loudoun County has transformed dramatically from a predominantly white, rural area to an increasingly diverse, affluent Washington, D.C., suburb. In the past decade alone, the number of schools in the district nearly doubled, from 47 to 80. At the same time, the racial composition of the district changed rapidly, with the proportion of whites declining by 20 percentage points and, notably, the share of Asian students more than doubling from 6% to 15%. As Figure 3 reveals, Loudoun’s attendance zones are highly gerrymandered, particularly in the densely populated eastern portion of the district. Indeed, segregation among all racial and ethnic groups — but particularly between white and Asian students — would be substantially lower if all students attended the school closest to their home.
Affirmative gerrymandering can foster diverse schools
The finding that attendance zone boundaries generally reinforce racial disparities in schools is concerning. However, more than one-third of all school districts studied are gerrymandered in ways that reduce segregation and promote racially diverse schools.
The potentially positive effects of gerrymandering on integration are particularly evident in the dwindling number of school districts that remain subject to court-ordered desegregation. After Brown, many school districts began to bus students so they could achieve court-ordered desegregation, which essentially created affirmatively gerrymandered attendance zones designed to achieve racial balance. Our results suggest that such gerrymandering is still an effective tool to reduce segregation — particularly black-white segregation — in districts subject to court-ordered desegregation.
Troublingly, though, once those districts are released from court orders, they do not appear to maintain affirmative boundaries. This is concerning given that, of the thousands of school districts under desegregation orders at the height of the civil rights era, just over 300 remain under desegregation orders today.
Districts promote diversity through innovative boundaries
In addition to dismantling existing desegregation orders, the courts are increasingly narrowing the options available to school districts that voluntarily want to promote diverse schools. Notably, in the 2007 case Parents Involved v. Seattle, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school districts cannot achieve their objectives of increasing diversity and reducing racial isolation by assigning students to schools based on their individual racial classification.
In a concurring opinion, however, Justice Anthony Kennedy held that because diversity is a “compelling state interest,” a “general recognition of neighborhood demographics” can be factored into the design of attendance zones. That is, while a district cannot take an individual student’s race into account when deciding school assignments, it may choose to create a zone that, say, stretches across demographically different neighborhoods. Thus, the affirmative gerrymandering of attendance zones does remain a legally viable tool for districts that want to promote diversity in their schools.
A handful of districts nationwide have adopted creative strategies for achieving racial diversity through boundaries and assignment strategies that explicitly take geography into consideration. Two districts that are notable for this work — Berkeley Unified School District in California and Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky — have learned to balance the imperative for diversity with an emphasis on parental choice.
Berkeley Unified School District, with its long-standing commitment to school diversity, has been a pioneer in integration efforts. Under its current plan, Berkeley has three large attendance zones (each containing four to five elementary schools), which have been gerrymandered to approximate the diversity of the district as a whole. Parents select their top school choices from within their attendance zone, and these selections are generally granted. If, however, their choices would result in their selected school deviating significantly from the average level of diversity for the attendance zone, students may be assigned to another campus. Diversity is based not on a student’s individual characteristics but the characteristics of their local neighborhood, including parental education, parental income, and race and ethnicity. Since being implemented in 2004, Berkeley’s plan has been credited with maintaining stable integration throughout the district, while still enabling a majority of parents to obtain their school of choice (Richards et al., 2012).
A handful of districts nationwide have adopted creative strategies for achieving racial diversity through boundaries and assignment strategies that explicitly take geography into consideration.
Jefferson County Public Schools, which encompasses Louisville, Ky., has transformed from a district under court-ordered desegregation into one of the largest voluntary integration programs in the country. At the elementary school level, students are assigned to schools based on parental preferences and the characteristics of the diversity of the census block group in which the student resides. Similar to Berkeley’s plan, JCPS defines diversity in terms of the educational attainment, income, and racial composition of each block group. At the high school level, JCPS relies exclusively on boundaries to achieve integration: Students are assigned to schools of residence. However, these zones have been affirmatively drawn to maximize the diversity of neighborhoods. Encouragingly, research has shown that JCPS schools have balanced racial integration with high levels of community support, positive academic outcomes, and reduced transportation costs (Orfield & Frankenberg, 2011).
Implications for schools
The decades following Brown v. Board of Education witnessed substantial declines in the racial and ethnic segregation of public schools. Affirmatively gerrymandered attendance zones constituted an important, albeit controversial, strategy to achieve racial balance during the desegregation era. As a result of these efforts, schools were often less segregated than their surrounding neighborhoods. Unfortunately, most contemporary attendance zones serve to exacerbate rather than ameliorate racial inequalities in educational opportunity, contributing to schools that are less racially diverse than their neighborhoods.
In electoral redistricting, gerrymandering predominantly on the basis of race is unconstitutional. It should be emphasized that the discriminatory gerrymandering of attendance zones on the basis of race is also unconstitutional, as established in Keyes vs. Denver in 1973. Although such cases are rarely litigated, it is critically important that district leaders carefully monitor redistricting processes to ensure that boundaries are equitable with respect to all racial and ethnic groups.
Affirmatively gerrymandering attendance zones to increase diversity is both feasible and legally defensible. Schools are embedded in communities that remain highly segregated by race and income. While school leaders cannot change where students live, they have the power to use school boundaries to create educational communities that highlight the diversity of their districts. A handful of districts, such as Berkeley Unified School District and Jefferson County Public Schools, have used attendance zoning to reduce racial and socioeconomic inequities, while maintaining high levels of parental satisfaction. However, thousands more districts nationwide could still achieve substantial decreases in segregation through boundary changes.
District leadership is paramount to establishing and maintaining equitable school boundaries. While parental and community pressures certainly influence zoning processes, superintendents, principals, and district and school personnel play a key role in defining and articulating district priorities for rezoning. The extent to which school boundaries foster or hinder efforts at enhancing school diversity is highly dependent on the motivation and political will of district leadership.
Myrdal, G. (1944). An American dilemma: The Negro problem and American democracy, Vol. 2. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers.
Orfield, G. & Frankenberg, E. (2011). Experiencing integration in Louisville: How parents and students see the gains and challenges. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Civil Rights Project.
Richards, M.P. (2014). The gerrymandering of school attendance zones and the segregation of American schools: A geospatial analysis. American Educational Research Journal, 51 (6), 1119-1157.
Richards, M.P. & Stroub, K.J. (2015). An accident of geography? Assessing the gerrymandering of public school attendance zones. Teachers College Record, 117 (7).
Richards, M.P., Stroub, K.J., Heilig, J.V., & Volonnino, M. (2012). Achieving diversity in the Parents Involved era: Evidence for geographic integration plans in metropolitan school districts. Berkeley Journal of African-American Law and Policy, 14.
MEREDITH P. RICHARDS (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an assistant professor of education policy and leadership, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.
Originally published in November 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (3), 65-70. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.