Monday, February 5, 2018

Measuring Segregation in Your Local School District

Vox has published an incredibly powerful new tool for measuring segregation in your local schools.  For those teaching in the area (or engaging in local advocacy), it allows you to make the issue far more personal and tangible than it otherwise would be.

Just select your local district and the tool will pull up a color-coded picture of the school attendance boundaries in your district.  One version of the map will tell you the current racial demographics of each school.  The other will show you what the demographics would be if students were assigned to the school nearest where they live.  It then indicates whether the current zoning is making school segregation better or worse.  In other words, if we accept current housing segregation patterns as a given, does school zoning make schools even more segregated?  

As Vox chart below indicates, most districts do not make things substantially better or worse, yet there are many that do.  It is, of course, more complex than that and I advise against just looking at the highest level data.  The chart reduces each district to a single category--makes segregation better or worse.  If you look at individual districts, however, you can see that a district might make things better or worse in particular pockets of the district.  This gets lost when reducing the district to an average. 

In Richland One School District in Columbia, SC, for instance, the overall district basically tracks the segregation of the city.  But that is not the case in all pockets of the city.  The district appears to assign students who live in predominantly minority neighborhoods to predominantly minority schools.  Conversely, schools located in predominantly wealthy white neighborhoods tend to pull in an additional percentage of minority students from surrounding areas. In other words, the district does not touch racial isolation in minority neighborhoods, but it whittles at it in white neighborhoods. A district might also whittle out minority students in neighborhoods that are at the tipping point of becoming majority-minority.  This would, presumably, make whites more likely to remain in their local school.  You can assess the merits of this yourself, but it surely raises a host of questions you would miss if only looking at the high level data.



With that said, the tool has limitations.  First, poverty is not included in the charts.  That requires much more analysis. It is fair enough that we must do that work ourselves, but doing it is necessary to get a full and accurate picture.  Second, the theoretically neutral assignment policy that the study gauges current assignments against is just that--theoretical--and likely includes several real world errors.  The theoretical model assigns students to the school nearest their home, but there are various legitimate reasons why a district does not assign a student to the school nearest him.  The differing size of schools and traffic patterns are the most obvious.  No large scale study, however, can account for that level of nuance, so as a global study its assumption seems reasonable, but in your local community, you might want to double check for that.  Third, as the Supreme Court first noted in Keyes v. School District No. 1, school construction and zoning can drive housing segregation.  Thus, housing segregation is not a neutral bar against which to measure school segregation and this study lets districts off too easy.

Yet, this last point is what makes the Vox study so compelling.  It tells us to accept the world, with all its flaws, as it is.  Once we do that, we can ask a simple question: are current school district boundaries creating new and additional forms of segregation?  As a matter of framing, that is a powerful question to ask and answer.

Racial Integration and Diversity | Permalink


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