The vast majority of states leave school district mergers up to local districts, and even the states that have the power to step in do so only under the direst of circumstances, leaving students stranded in underfunded school systems.
School district borders define both which students will be served by a district and where those schools get their dollars. When states rely on local taxes to support schools, borders can be drawn to provide a deep well of resources for all of the community's children—or they can segregate those children along lines of opportunity and wealth.
When shifting conditions leave a school district without enough local resources to get by, it may seek to improve its financial health by consolidating with a better-off neighbor district. But in most states, that's all but impossible. In thirty-nine states, consolidation is purely voluntary, and struggling districts are likely to be turned away by their wealthier neighbor districts. In twenty-five states, there are financial incentives meant to encourage mergers, but they are rarely successful at bringing about consolidations for the districts that truly need them. In fact, only nine states have mechanisms that allow the state to mandate a merger, even in the direst of circumstances.
School district secessions are inefficient and entrench community inequities—but they continue to happen in states across the country. What is driving this behavior and what can states do to curtail this alarming trend?
School district secessions are explicitly allowed in most states, despite their deleterious effect on efficiency and equality of resources. Of the 30 states with explicit policies detailing how a community can secede from its current district, only six require consideration of the effects on racial and socioeconomic diversity. Only nine mandate a study of the funding impact. By having in place such permissive policies, states are incentivizing behavior which widens the economic and opportunity divide as it relates to our children.
High-poverty school districts enroll half of America's schoolchildren, and often, children in affluent, neighboring districts benefit from greater resources. This report highlights the country’s most segregating borders and considers how this situation has come to pass.
Income-based segregation between school districts is rising. Today, high-poverty school districts enroll half of America's schoolchildren. Often these high poverty districts neighbor wealthier school systems where children have access to greater resources. Because property taxes play such an important role in school funding, affluent communities have an incentive to establish school district borders around their neighborhoods in order to ensure that the benefit of their wealth is reserved for their children alone. When the families with means isolate themselves in wealthy districts, low-income children are left behind and income segregation between school districts increases.
This report presents the results of EdBuild’s analysis of the degree of income segregation across America's school district borders. In particular, it highlights trends among the 50 most segregating borders, and tells the stories of Detroit, MI; Birmingham, AL; Clairton, PA; Dayton, OH; and Balsz, AZ, whose borders with wealthy neighboring districts are the most segregated in the country.
Our current school funding system often bolsters school district boundaries between rich and poor, holding resources in wealthy communities and keeping low-income students from accessing broader opportunities.
Schools have the potential to serve as a corrective, a way to bring students of different socioeconomic backgrounds together and to bring resources and opportunity into the lives of needy kids. The school funding system we have, though, only draws brighter lines between the haves and have-nots.