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How school district boundaries are gerrymandered to keep poor kids segregated

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

There's nothing natural about school district boundaries. They're drawn by human beings — often in ways that keep poorer students separate from their wealthier peers.

This is partly a reflection of neighborhood segregation by race and class. But school districts themselves often have arbitrary, gerrymandered boundaries. EdBuild, a startup advocating for changes to school finance, makes this clear by mapping school districts' poverty rates.

The national map looks like a map of poverty by county in the US. But school districts don't always follow county lines — they carve counties and sometimes cities and towns into poorer and richer sections, keeping poor students separate from everyone else.

Wyandotte County, Kansas, is an example. About 35 percent of kids in the county were in poverty in 2012. But the county is divided into four school districts (including two within Kansas City, Kansas, itself) with varying poverty levels, ranging from 40 percent of students in the Kansas City Unified School District to 11 percent in neighboring Piper:

Wyandotte County, Kansas, includes four school districts with varying poverty levels. (Neighboring Johnson County is even less poor.)


Camden, New Jersey, has one very poor district — 45 percent of kids living in poverty — surrounded by many districts with much lower poverty:

Camden, New Jersey, has a peninsula of poverty surrounded by well-off districts.


Arguably the most egregious example — or at least the worst that EdBuild found — comes from Ohio, where the Toledo School District is split in half:

Toledo City Schools are split in two.


This dates from the late 1950s, when a plan to merge school districts went wrong because one district had more black and low-income students. The wealthier district voted to reject them:

Spencer students were left in a smaller, poorer Spencer-Sharples school district. By 1968, the district was under-enrolled and underfunded, with no neighboring school district willing to join with it. At the request of the Ohio state government, Toledo Public Schools, which lay on the other side of Springfield, agreed to annex Spencer-Sharples. But by 1980, district leadership decided it had become too costly and difficult to operate schools located in Spencer, isolated as they were from the rest of Toledo’s school system. Over the strong objections of many in the affected community, Toledo closed all schools formerly located in Spencer-Sharples and began to bus students through Springfield into western Toledo.

The children in the former Spencer-Sharples district are now part of Toledo's school district, which has a 38 percent poverty rate. They all have to take a bus all the way through a district with 21 percent poverty, and much closer schools, just to get an education.

(h/t CityLab)