Report: 50 of the Most Segregating School Districts Are in the North, Not the South

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Fifth-grader Naomi Goodloe, 11, on her way to her new school in the Francis Howell School District in the St. Louis suburbs. Credit Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post Dispatch via AP
Fifth-grader Naomi Goodloe, 11, on her way to her new school in the Francis Howell School District in the St. Louis suburbs. Credit Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post Dispatch via AP

The phenomena of race and class segregation are often associated with states and towns located south of the Mason-Dixon line.

However, a recent report by non-profit EdBuild revealed that some of the nation’s most segregating school boundaries are located in the Northern U.S., not the South.

In the report titled “Fault Lines,” EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia and her team compiled a list of school district borders with the largest disparities in child-age poverty rates from one side to the other. In this case, the term “segregating” specifically refers to class segregation, not race segregation. However, it’s not uncommon for the two to overlap.

“The chasms between our school districts are growing wider,” the report reads. “Today, half of America’s children live in high-poverty school districts, where they are more likely to experience poor health, be exposed to violence, and attend schools in decaying buildings. This is not always due to a lack of resources in the area, however; often, these high-poverty districts border affluent areas where better-off students benefit from greater funding.”

For instance, the school boundary between Detroit and neighboring affluent community Grosse Point topped EdBuild’s list as the most segregating in the country. According to the report, the poverty rate for school-age children in Detroit is 49.18 percent, compared to 6.52 percent in Grosse Pointe. The median household incomes for the two communities are $26,807 and $90,542 respectively.

Researchers attribute these stark disparities to the 1974 Supreme Court case Milliken v. Bradley. In it, desegregation was ordered for predominately Black Detroit and its surrounding all-white suburban districts. However, the Court held that desegregation couldn’t be ordered across school district lines, which were drawn by state and local governments. Thus, the cross-district efforts for integration were shot down.

Alabama’s Birmingham City-Vestavia Hills City border comes in at No. 2 on the list, with poverty rates eerily similar to those in Detroit and Grosse Pointe. NPR reports that six of Birmingham’s 13 school districts ended up on EdBuild’s top 50 list of most segregating school borders. This is in part because the city’s low-income school districts are surrounded by several smaller affluent districts, like Vestavia Hills and Mountain Brook. Over the years, districts seceded and utilized their property tax wealth to create new mini-districts, the news site reports.

Alabama also stands out because it’s the only southern state on a list dotted with segregated school districts in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Illinois, among others.

Sibilia said the finding came as a shock to her and her research team.

“We honestly believed we were going to see a lot of this in the South and very little in the North,” she explained.

Rutgers University education historian Ben Justice argues that Supreme Court cases like Milliken v. Bradley are the cause for many of the segregated school districts we see today. According to NPR, Justice asserts that current school district lines are simply an extension of past systemic discrimination.

“…To argue that where people live, particularly by the 1960s, was not the result of racist government policy was simply a lie,” he said. “Public policy and private industry conspired to create neighborhoods where people could or could not live.”

Even 42 years after that Supreme Court ruling, the effects of race and class segregation along school district lines are still playing out in several states across America. Earlier this year, a school district in Mississippi was forced to desegregate after it defied the 1954 ruling of Brown v. Board of Education.

“The delay in desegregation has deprived generations of students of the constitutionally guaranteed right of an integrated education,” wrote U.S. District Judge Debra M. Brown. “Although no court order can right these wrongs, it is the duty of the District to ensure that not one more student suffers under this burden.”

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