Why Does Segregation Between School Districts Matter for Educational Equity?

Across the country, most public school students live in racially concentrated school districts where most white students live in predominantly white districts and most Black students live in predominantly Black districts. School district boundaries fuel racial inequalities in access to educational opportunities by perpetuating the link between residential segregation and school segregation. These divisions shuffle some students into districts with well-resourced, opportunity-rich schools and others into districts with fewer resources, shaping the trajectory of students’ lives.

This is not inevitable. School districts, local governments, and especially states have the power to fix these inequities.

Why do US communities remain so segregated?

Stark residential segregation continues to be a reality across the United States. A typical white person lives in a neighborhood where the population is 75 percent white and 8 percent Black, and a typical Black person lives in a neighborhood with a 45 percent Black and 35 percent white population. 

Racial residential segregation is an outcome of racist government policy and individual practices that have barred Black people from equal opportunity in the housing market. Between 1935 and 1968, the Federal Housing Administration denied loans to Black homebuyers and neighborhoods classified as “risky” investments because of their race, ethnicity, and immigration status. Restrictive covenants legally prohibited Black people from buying property in certain areas, and intimidation and violence were commonly used to maintain segregated neighborhoods. Today, real estate agents and rental housing providers continue to discriminate against people of color through racial steering, sales discrimination, and targeted predatory lending.

Why does residential segregation produce racially segregated school districts?

The Urban Institute estimates that residential segregation accounts for approximately 76 percent of school segregation in metropolitan areas. And segregation between districts, rather than school segregation within districts, accounts for two-thirds of total public school segregation.

School districts remain highly segregated through the influence of policy choices and racial prejudices. Following school desegregation rulings in the 20th century, school demographics shifted. In the years following Brown v. Board of Education, white student enrollment in urban public schools declined, and white student enrollment shifted to suburban school districts and private schools. And in 1974, the Supreme Court case Milliken v. Bradley ruled that integration measures in Brown v. Board applied to inequities within school districts, but not between school districts, and desegregation plans did not need to apply to racial segregation between school districts. 

Today, racial prejudices and exclusivity continue to maintain segregated school districts. Implicit biases shape white people’s choices about where to live and where to send their children to school. In schools with a predominately white student body that experience increased enrollment of Black students, white residents are more likely to perceive that the quality of the school has declined. And the practice of school district “secession“ (PDF), in which smaller communities within larger school districts create their own school districts, has increased. Evidence shows the creation of new, smaller districts, which are often wealthy and predominately white, increase racial and ethnic inequality between districts.

Why and how do segregated school districts contribute to inequities in educational opportunities?

School district boundaries are tied to district revenue sources. School district revenues are made of three primary sources: local funding (usually via local property taxes), state funding, and federal funding. On average, local and state funding make up the majority of a school district’s funding sources.

School revenue is important for educational opportunity. Revenues feed into school spending, which, in turn, influence students’ short- and long-term opportunities and achievements. Additionally, past school desegregation efforts have improved outcomes for Black students by increasing resources available to Black students.

Basing schools’ local revenues on property taxes builds in an inequitable starting point for districts. On average, local funding revenues are lower in districts with higher poverty and lower property wealth and higher in districts with lower poverty and higher property wealth. The average Black and Latinx student’s district has less local revenue than the average white student’s district, but more state and federal revenue. State and federal funding mitigate inequalities in districts’ local revenues, and over the past decades, spending differences related to property wealth has decreased between districts (PDF).

Wealth, power, and race continue to maintain interdistrict segregation and influence access to high-quality school districts. Contemporary funding structures have not fully eliminated the relationship between racial segregation and school funding. Recent research shows greater segregation between districts is associated with larger gaps in school revenue between predominantly Black and predominantly white school districts because of racial disparities in local revenues. 

Families with more resources are still able to pay more for a home in a district with high-quality schools, and families with higher incomes and more educational attainment are more likely to take on increases in housing costs to move to higher-quality school zones. Landlord discriminatory practices also perpetuate economic and racial residential and school segregation because landlords are more likely to deny vouchers in districts with higher-performing schools.

If a state decides to prioritize supporting racially integrated school systems, the power to alter school districts rests in the hands of state legislatures or an appointed state-level authority. States that wish to decrease segregation between school districts should review the ways their district boundaries racially segregate or integrate their public schools and revisit these boundaries to ensure all students have equal access to well-resourced, opportunity-rich schools. State funding formula options that could increase racially equitable spending include capping local funding contributions or increasing funding weight for students from families with low-incomes or English language learners, but the funding change that works best will be state specific. Local governments that wish to combat segregation between school districts may build and create incentives for affordable housing in opportunity-rich communities with high-quality schools.