© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The 50 Most Segregating School Borders In America

Gustav Dejert
Getty Images

The grass is greener ... if you're a student in Detroit, looking across your school district's boundary with the neighboring Grosse Pointe public schools.

Nearly half of Detroit's students live in poverty; that means a family of four lives on roughly $24,000 a year — or less.

In Grosse Pointe, a narrow stretch of real estate nestled between Detroit and Lake St. Clair, just 7 percent of students live at or below the poverty line.

To recap, that's 49 percent vs. 7 percent. Neighbors.

Which is why a new report from the nonprofit EdBuild ranks the Detroit-Grosse Pointe boundary as "the most segregating school district border in the country."

The report, called "Fault Lines," doesn't stop there.

"What we did is built an algorithm that identified all 33,500 school district borders in the country ... and compared their school-aged child poverty rates," says Rebecca Sibilia, the founder and CEO of EdBuild.

From this comparison Sibilia's team compiled a list of the 50 most segregating school boundaries in the nation — in short, the district borders with the largest difference in child poverty rates from one side to the other. In this case, "segregating" is being used to talk specifically about class, not race, though the two often overlap, especially in America's large urban school systems.

Rounding out the top three on the Fault Lines list are the Birmingham City School District in Alabama and ... the Birmingham City School District in Alabama.

In fact, of Birmingham's 13 school district boundaries, six landed on EdBuild's list of the 50 most segregating. That's because the poverty rate of Birmingham's students is 49 percent, while the district is surrounded by several far smaller, far more affluent districts: Vestavia Hills (6 percent child poverty), Mountain Brook (7 percent), Trussville (10 percent), to name a few.

Birmingham's district lines weren't always a story of haves and have nots, at least not this glaring. Most of the affluent districts now bordering the city's schools were once part of the larger Jefferson County School District. But over the years, they have seceded, using their considerable property tax wealth to create new minidistricts.

Interestingly, Birmingham stands out not only because of its multiple appearances but because Alabama is the only Southern state on the list (unless you count Kentucky or Missouri). One reason for this, says Sibilia, is that in much of the South, county borders do double duty as school district borders, "and so there is less opportunity for intentional segregation."

In fact, Sibilia says, she and her team "were shocked. We honestly believed we were going to see a lot of this in the South and very little in the North."

Instead, the vast majority of states on EdBuild's list were Northern, with segregating school lines heavily concentrated in the Rust Belt, particularly Ohio. Dayton's schools have two borders on the list. Ditto Youngstown. Cleveland has four. As manufacturing jobs disappeared, so too did families that could afford to move, creating intense pockets of student poverty.

What can be done about it?

There are no easy fixes, owing in part to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1970, the NAACP sued the state of Michigan; its lawyers argued that Detroit's schools were still unofficially segregated more than 15 years after Brown v. Board of Education because of discriminatory housing policies meant to keep African-Americans out of the suburbs. The proposed remedy: a forced desegregation plan involving dozens of surrounding school districts.

But in one of its most controversial decisions, Milliken v. Bradley in 1974, the court ruled that these largely white, affluent suburban districts could not be forced to desegregate because their boundaries were not deliberately discriminatory. Or had not been proved so.

"The court said that the school district as a concept is basically untouchable," says Ben Justice, an education historian at Rutgers University's Graduate School of Education.

Justice calls the Milliken decision "ridiculous" because, he says, "to argue that where people live, particularly by the 1960s, was not the result of racist government policy was simply a lie. Public policy and private industry conspired to create neighborhoods where people could or could not live." And, Justice says, school district lines were (and remain) an extension of that discrimination.

Fast-forward more than 40 years after that ruling. One of the school borders at the heart of that case tops EdBuild's new list: the jagged curve that today separates Detroit's schools, where half of all students live in poverty, from those of Grosse Pointe, where poverty is blissfully uncommon.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.