Dismissed: America’s Most Divisive Borders
Thirteen districts surround Philadelphia’s public school system. Two-thirds of these neighboring school systems are at least 25 percentage points whiter, and have a minimum of 10% more funding—an average of over $5,000 more in per-pupil dollars. One of these, Lower Merion, is consistently named one of the nation’s top school districts. Lower Merion is 60% whiter than Philadelphia, and its students receive over $30,000 per student—nearly double that provided for the students of Philadelphia, of whom 86% are nonwhite. Philadelphia is far from alone. Nationwide, there are almost 1,000 school district borders that so significantly separate neighboring districts by race and funding.
Forty-five years ago, the United States Supreme Court decided Milliken v. Bradley, a pivotal education equity case that set the terms of our fractured education system. In that ruling, the Court acknowledged profound school district segregation in and around Detroit, but upheld the use of an arbitrary school district border to deny opportunity to the city’s children. The Court ruled that when students are segregated not by law, but by a school district border, the federal courts have no way to mandate integration across that boundary. When a line is drawn, for all intents and purposes, it becomes a wall—one that can separate our students by race, class, and opportunity.
A school district’s border dictates who goes to school in that district, but that isn’t all. Because school funding begins with local taxes, these lines also largely determine which kids have access to what resources. Put simply, high-poverty communities tend to get fewer school dollars than more advantaged ones; majority-minority districts usually get less than whiter ones; and poor, nonwhite communities are disadvantaged twice over when it comes to school funding. In fact, almost 9 million students in America—one in five public schoolchildren—live virtually across the street from a significantly whiter and richer school district. For every one student enrolled in a whiter and richer district in our study, three of their neighbors are left behind in lower-funded schools serving far more nonwhite students.
These pairs of neighboring districts see both a racial divide of at least 25 percentage points and a revenue gap of 10% or greater. On average, the divisive borders between them create a funding disparity of $4,207 per student. It is even worse for students on the disadvantaged side of the 132 most divisive borders, where the revenue gap is at least 20% and the racial difference is upwards of 50 points—a race gap wider than the one between Atlanta’s schools and those in Boulder, Colorado. Those borders produce, on average, a resource inequality of more than $6,500. The more divided by race our school districts are, the larger the funding gap that students see.
These divides have real consequences for students across the country. Explore the map to see where borders separate students from resources—and from each other or click here to read the report.