Educational Gerrymandering: A Look at Modern Segregation in American Schools

Gerrymandering, as explained by the Washington Post, refers to ‘the drawing of political boundaries in a way that gives your party a numeric advantage over an opposing party’. This long-sustained tactic employed by both the Democratic and Republican parties has transformed, moving beyond the legislative, beyond the confines of Partisan advantage. Gerrymandering has entered a space which does more than disempower minority party members’ voting rights: it also gerrymanders public school attendance zones, allowing districts to segregate their schools along the same lines used by politicians.

Despite America’s increasingly diversified population over the past several decades, public schools have increasingly become more segregated by the boundaries of racial and class-based difference.This is due to the systematic drawing and redrawing of school district lines, which contributes directly to a racially and socioeconomically determined achievement gap, barring the opportunity for educational growth merely due to the contexts and backgrounds of the students in question. Racially segregated school districts lines work in conjunction with preexisting racially segregated political boundaries. Though attendance zones in the desegregation era created schools that were less segregated than the neighborhoods they served, attendance zones as of late have reversed these results. Meredith Richards, a professor of Education Policy at Southern Methodist University, used geospatial techniques to analyze the gerrymandering of public schools attendance zones and its subsequent effects on students, saying, ‘Unfortunately, most contemporary attendance zones serve to exacerbate rather than ameliorate racial inequalities in educational opportunity, contributing to schools that are less racially diverse than their neighborhoods.’ Furthermore, out of the 15,000 attendance zones Richards studied, it was revealed that on average ‘gerrymandered boundaries increase segregation beyond what would be expected if all students attended their closest school.’

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Continuing to foster and promote segregated schools by way of district lines can have long-lasting developmental effects on students, as shown by a 2014 study from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Kirsten Kainz, the director of statistics for the institute that carried out the study, discovered through already compiled research by the US Department of Education that African American first graders in segregated schools made significantly smaller growth in reading ability than African American students in other schools. Using research that took into account the numerous differences in students’ backgrounds, ‘Kainz realized the primary reason was the segregated schools themselves—not the students.’ This study serves as a testament to the negative effects of segregated schools on a wider scale.

In 1954, the United States Supreme Court declared the “separate but equal” doctrine unconstitutional, legally doing away with the state laws that allowed public schools to segregate students by the boundary of race. A cornerstone of the American civil rights movement, Brown v The Board of Education did not do away with segregation on its own, but paved the way for efforts to come. Despite these movements, de facto segregation is still very much alive in the United States. Educational opportunity for minority students should not be contingent on decisions made by district leadership, but rather it should be an inherently afforded opportunity to all Americans. While these leaders do not have the power to change where students live, they do have the power to redraw the lines of school attendance zones, gerrymandering in an affirmative way. This would create educational communities which would serve to emphasize the diversity of districts rather than perpetuate racial and socioeconomic inequalities. Though a few districts have responded to segregation by affirmative gerrymandering, there are still so many districts that have yet to employ this method.

De facto segregation in public schools is a lived reality for many, with polarizing consequences that foster the continuities of race-based inequalities that are commonly held in the American psyche as no longer existing due to the Civil Rights movement. There is still much to be done, as a matter of urgency, to rectify the injustice perpetuated by legislatures that has hindered educational opportunity and fostered the continuity of the achievement gap. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a district that allowed me to attend a top tier public school with plenty of resources and opportunities for growth, many of which I probably took for granted. My own place in this rhetoric is speaking from a stance of privilege. All across America, millions of children are not so lucky to be afforded that privilege. I know this article may not have the power to undo the already irreparable damage our current school attendance boundaries may have caused for many, but I hope it can be a starting point by which we as a society (or at least those who may read this) can bring this issue to the forefront and challenge preconceived notions of America as a land of equality. Encouraging the implementation of affirmative gerrymandering is a vital step in this process. If you are interested in learning about this issue in more detail, read this article by Richards, an assistant professor of education policy and leadership at SMU.

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