District boundaries help maintain cycles of poverty

District boundaries help maintain cycles of poverty

(Mich.) School district boundaries are perpetuating segregation between wealthy and low-income youth, which contributes to lower academic achievement, increased health issues and incarceration rates for students in in high-poverty communities, according to new research.

In Detroit Public Schools, nearly 50 percent of children live in poverty, while only 7 percent of their neighbors in Grosse Pointe Public Schools face the same level of impoverishment, according to EdBuild, a nonprofit focused on issues of school funding equity, which examined segregation of wealth in all bordering school districts in the country.

Though researchers found Detroit to be the most divided community, districts in Alabama, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Arizona were also among those with the widest gaps between connected districts.

“We’ve created and maintained a system of schools segregated by class and bolstered by arbitrary borders that, in effect, serve as the new status quo for separate but unequal,” authors of the report, “Fault Lines: America’s Most Segregating School District Borders,” wrote. “These divisions are harmful for all students, but especially for those who reside on the wrong side of these borders.”

Children who live in poverty are at a greater risk of dropping out, developing behavioral and emotional problems, depression and incarceration, among numerous other negative outcomes, according to the American Psychological Association.

The report from EdBuild, which was released this week, found that increasing the per-pupil funding allocated to districts with high percentages of low-income children by 10 percent can increase educational attainment and future wages, thereby decreasing rates of adult poverty.

Researchers noted that because property taxes are a major factor in generating funds for schools, communities with fewer properties or inexpensive housing are at a disadvantage relative to their wealthier counterparts, as is the case in Michigan, where the average value of a home in Detroit is $45,100 compared to $220,100 in Grosse Pointe.

In 180 instances, communities had developed “island” districts: those with just one border that is shared with another district that encircles it entirely. Some are “wealthy enclaves amid seas of poverty,” researchers found, while others were pockets of high-need families within more affluent areas.

The issue of segregation between districts was addressed in a 1974 United States Supreme Court case, Milliken v. Bradley, in which a group of African-American parents represented by the Detroit chapter of the NAACP challenged racial segregation in Detroit schools.

The court ruled that districts neighboring Detroit could not be compelled by the state to take part in a solution to end segregation—a decision which researchers concluded has diminished the capacity to integrate schools or require district boundaries be evaluated or redrawn to ensure better outcomes for students.

Since the case was originally argued in 1970, poverty rates between Detroit and Grosse Point grew from a 33 percent gap to a 175 percent gap in 2012.

“In present day America, we allow invisible lines to determine the fate of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens,” authors wrote. “There’s no requirement that school districts be redrawn to ensure fairness as populations change. … It’s time to rethink this system.”