Income Segregation Reproduces Education Segregation

Sixty-two years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional. Yet many remain racially, ethnically and family-income homogenous today. Just this week, a federal judge ruled that a Mississippi school needed to be desegregated. A recent study blames some of that segregation on parents with school-aged children. The author found that income segregation by neighborhoods increased dramatically over the past decade, but only among households with children. The author suggests it is because parents are making residential decisions based in part by school district. When high-income parents are the only ones who can afford certain school districts, we see residential segregation reproduced in public schools.


The Tiebout Model, developed by economist Charles Tiebout, refers to sorting of households into neighborhoods and communities according to their willingness and ability to pay for public goods. So people who value education will be more likely to move to neighborhoods with higher property taxes, where those taxes are funding the district schools. People who value education less, maybe, for example, those without children, will move to areas with lower property taxes. However, this becomes a problem for education because the result is that wealthy people who can afford the higher property taxes are able to move to the districts where education is valued and schools have greater resources. The poor, even if they value education, are forced to live in neighborhoods where taxes are low because that is all that they can afford. The result is that they have to send their children to under-performing schools.


Parents’ desire for the best education possible is understandable. However, they are also hindering – intentionally or not – their child’s future ability to succeed in today’s globalized world by limiting them to experiences and interaction with other children similar to them. Kids have to learn to learn to navigate a culturally-diverse work place and be able to find common ground with people of different backgrounds and privileges. The sooner this happens in their developing years, the better. So how can we incentivize parents to want to send their children to income-, racially- and ethnically-diverse education settings?


In places like California and New York, the financing stream is being revamped to create more equal funding for schools, pulling less money from property taxes. However, this results in less money for schools that traditionally had more, so that it is equal across the board. This sounds okay in theory, but may still lead to inequities because wealthier parents segregated in certain neighborhoods will donate to their school, hold fundraisers and generally have more time to be engaged in creating more opportunities for their school and students. Parent engagement leads to better outcomes for the students and the school. So again, income segregation will create disparities in education.


Another option is to consolidate fragmented school districts, which became a hot-button issue after an Oklahoma bill proposed consolidating a number of under-performing schools to remedy budget cuts and pool resources. Oklahoma has 500 school districts, with fewer than 1,500 students enrolled in each. Parents and teachers fiercely opposed the bill and it wasn’t passed. Nationally, school districts with small enrollments are common, and while the majority is in rural areas, 2,050 are located in metro areas. Fragmented school districts can lead to great inequities between schools, especially those that draw upon property taxes for resources. Consolidating fragmented schools to address income segregation among neighborhoods deserves further research.


Other towns have re-drawn school district boundaries to improve segregation, but this is rare and has been met with much resistance. Relying on long-set boundaries, usually using man-made landmarks, have historically been set to enforce segregation. See this visual of how American cities have long been racially segregated by railroad tracks, highways and other man-made things. Getting parents on board can be the biggest roadblock though. With sound research showing the importance of creating heterogenous schools to close disparity gaps, parents could hopefully be convinced of the importance of sending their child to a diverse school.

Much remains to be done to research the best way communities can diversify their schools and create equitable opportunity in education for all kids.

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