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The $200,000+ Walls That Surround Poverty Stricken School Districts

October 4, 2016

The Atlantic’s Laura Bliss posted an article that provided an overview of a recent report by EdBuild that documents the huge divide that exists between poverty stricken school districts and their affluent neighbors. The EdBuild report describes the differential in housing values and resultant tax base as an “invisible fence” that effectively pens the children raised in poverty into dilapidated schools with low paid teachers and outmoded educational equipment. The report flags the 50 most extreme cases, which in many cases serve to not only isolate poverty stricken children from children raised in affluence but also serve as barriers to segregation. The most extreme case of segregation, unsurprisingly, is in Michigan:

According to a new report and interactive map by the education think tank EdBuild, the district border that Bradley navigates as a parent and an activist (she helped launch Enroll Detroit, which distributes information about school enrollment requirements to families) is the most income-segregating in the nation. The median property value in DPS is $45,100, versus $220,100 in suburban Grosse Pointe, and roughly half of the city student population lives in poverty, compared to one out of every 15 students across the district line—a difference of 42 percentage points. Local per-pupil public revenue is about the same, at around $4,650 per student, but that’s because Detroit now taxes properties at a rate of 8.7 percent each year to pay for its schools. This is 47 percent higher than the rate paid in Grosse Pointe.

This invisible boundary is especially poignant since it was reinforced by a US Supreme Court case in 1974, a case that effectively brought meaningful integration efforts following Brown v. Board of Education to an end. As Ms. Bliss writes:

In 1970, a group of Detroit families partnered with the NAACP in a lawsuit against the state of Michigan over racial segregation in their school district. A local judge ordered a cross-district desegregation plan involving busing students between neighborhood school systems, but Grosse Pointe, along with other suburban districts, refused to participate. In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court heard an appeal and ruled that integration efforts were only permissible within school districts, not between them. That helped turn district borders across the U.S. into unbreakable piggy banks: It allowed economic divides between school systems to grow and grow along inviolable lines, a pattern encouraged by the property-tax-based school finance system.

The EdBuild report highlights the 50 most extreme cases, but comparable instances of wall-buildling exist throughout the country. Indeed, the narrative accompanying the interactive maps estimate at least another 4,000 instances, which based on my experience in the Northeast section of our country seems realistic. And the problem appears to be intractable given the “desirability” of certain communities over others and the incompatibility that often results when different communities have different values when it comes to underwriting schools. But EdBuild’s CEO has a solution:

Should such district borders be dissolved and students economically integrated by force? Not necessarily, (the founder and CEO of EdBuild Rebecca) Sibilia says. “What we call for is a lessened importance of school-district lines by creating a larger tax pool that can fairly resource schools,” she says. “You can still have locally governed schools where you’ve got your own district standards, board of education, and superintendent. But if we can start to spread out differences in local revenue, then it disincentivizes schools from walling-off their money. And it could also lead to integration.”

The bottom line from my perspective is this: if we want to create a “larger tax pool that can fairly resource schools” we need to target more STATE resources to public education. When Maine consolidated schools in the early 1960s they provided 90% building aid, 90% transportation reimbursement, and put more money into the overall State funding formula to make it happen… and I was told anecdotally by local residents in the district I led in Western Maine that even that kind of financial incentive made it a challenge for some communities to merge with each other. Once invisible walls are constructed, it is as difficult to remove them as it would be if the Great Wall of China was in place. A robust financial incentive is needed to destroy the walls, and anything less will keep them in place.

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