Hundreds Of School Districts Nationally Deeply Divided Based on Race and Funding Segregation in school is unconstitutional, but integration can't be mandated across school districts.
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Hundreds Of School Districts Nationally Deeply Divided Based on Race and Funding

Marc Monaghan/for WBEZ

East Aurora School District in Chicago's western suburbs is made up of about 97% non-white students, and most are considered low income. Meanwhile, its neighbor, Batavia Public Schools, is about 80% white and only 17% low income. Batavia schools spend about $4,000 more per pupil.

A new report by Ed Build, a group that advocates for more equitable school funding systems, highlights deeply divisive neighboring school districts like Aurora and Batavia. It finds that the way boundaries are drawn in Illinois and across the country have forced millions of students into racially dense and underfunded systems.

Parent Darlene Jimenez said she's happy sending her kids to East Aurora schools, even though she wishes there were more extracurricular activities available like art programs. But she spoke highly of the dedication of the teachers.

However, this past year, an incident got her wondering about resources. A student in her son's second grade class had behavioral problems that Jimenez said made the past year difficult. She said it seemed the teacher did not have enough support from administrators to manage the student.

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"There weren't a lot of people that were able to help her and her situation," Jimenez said. "She had a lot of behavioral issues and things like that. I don't think she was getting the services she needed."

Jimenez compared the experience to the well-to-do school district in south suburban New Lenox where she grew up. She thinks there were enough resources there where behavioral issues were properly handled.

Hard borders

The historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education made clear that schools separated by race are unequal and that segregation is unconstitutional. But a later Supreme Court case in 1974, Milliken v. Bradley, ruled that federal law cannot mandate integration across school district borders.

"Not only do we end up with a lot of districts that can't be meaningfully integrated," said Ed Build founder Rebecca Sibilia. "But we're also ensuring that they're going to fall further and further behind by basing a lot of how we're resourcing schools based on the wealth of those communities."

The Ed Build report finds almost a 1,000 school district borders in the country demonstrate deep racially isolated and disparate funding between the districts that share the border.

It finds that almost 9 million students live on the disadvantaged side of those lines. On average, the district on the whiter and wealthier side receives more than $4,000 more per student each year. Overall, the report finds a $23 billion gap between mostly white and mostly nonwhite school districts in the country.

More than 70% of these extremely divisive borders separate districts that are in the same county. Sibilia said that while the report focused on the most divisive borders, disparities go beyond the most extreme examples. She said it's like electoral gerrymandering where it's easier to draw lines in smaller communities.

"These were not redrawing major lines around major metro systems. This was all from redrawing very small lines in small communities that make a huge impact," Sibilia said. "And it's exactly the same thing as our gerrymandered school borders."

Sibilia said states are giving more money to disadvantaged students but it's not enough to make up for the gap.

Barbara Bowman is co-founder and professor at the Erikson Institute, a Chicago graduate program focused on early childhood education. She said the findings in the report are nothing new, and that school funding is a symptom of a larger problem.

"It also has to do with banks and how their loan policies go. It has to do with redlining," Bowman said. "It has to do with the kind of resources that are made available to children who live in communities that are low income."

She said there's still a big difference in the number of school districts that provide free preschool, even with the help of federal programs like Head Start.

Ed Build's Sibilia said some of the states with the largest disparities include Illinois, New York and California. She said southern states tend to do better in integrating schools.

"School districts in southern states are organized by county lines, which are much bigger, naturally preexisting government lines," she said. "Why we're not aligning our municipal lines between school districts and counties and towns, speaks to how very divided our communities are."

That's part of what Ed Build recommends in correcting the disparities — for states to draw broader school districts, or to create larger taxing districts for schools to pool resources. It also recommends that states amend funding systems to end or decrease the role played by local tax revenues to end the local funding disparities between districts.

Illinois' new school funding law passed in 2017 focuses more money to the poorest districts. The state is required to contribute $350 million annually to boost kindergarten through high school funding. The latest state budget — and the first under new Gov. JB Pritzker — approved $375 million for this "evidence-based" funding formula.

Bowman of the Erikson Institute said the state is moving in the right direction, but is still far from fixing the problem. She said attitudes need to change about systems that reinforce racial and class segregation.

"The research says when we mix children it doesn't have any negative effect on middle class kids, and it does improve the environment for low income kids. Yet we haven't had very good success in integrating our schools," Bowman said.

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.

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