The term school redistricting refers to the redrawing of school district boundaries, typically with the intent to increase student diversity. As such, it is one of several methods for reallocating students and resources within the educational system of a geographic area. In recent years, redistricting typically sought to redress the various inequalities stemming from the residential segregation of students by race, ethnicity, and class. Unlike political redistricting, which typically seeks to consolidate the power of a single interest by decreasing voter diversity within a political boundary, school redistricting usually seeks to equalize student performance by increasing student diversity within an educational boundary.
The structural issue at the heart of school redistricting is the U.S. system of local funding for public schools. Because Americans exhibit a high degree of residential segregation by class, local funding tends to relegate children from the least materially advantaged backgrounds to schools with lower per-pupil expenditures, while more privileged students tend to live in areas with higher per-pupil spending. Higher per-pupil spending correlates with the ability to attract more experienced and qualified teachers, better infrastructure, better and more extensive technological resources, and more diverse programs for assisting students occupying a broad spectrum of abilities and needs, which in turn produce better student outcomes on measures such as grades, graduation rates, standardized test scores, and college attendance rates.
While other methods of student redistribution (such as voucher programs) address the problems of geographic disparities in funding by making per-pupil school funds portable to other school districts and/or to private and parochial schools on a strictly voluntary basis, school redistricting instead addresses the problem by redrawing the boundaries themselves. As such, redistricting ameliorates the problem of selectively helping only those of the best abilities or motivation; however, redistricting necessarily entails an involuntary redistribution of students and resources across unequal school contexts, a zero-sum game that is almost universally unpopular.
Adding to the politically and emotionally charged nature of school redistricting is the issue of unequal educational access and outcomes by race. De jure public school segregation, ending with the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, gave way to de facto segregation that persists to this day, abetted by continued residential segregation and persistent inequalities of power and resources.
In the past, a natural racial division legitimized segregation, reflecting the preferences of parents and students of all racial groups. More recent arguments against attempts to ameliorate segregation by redistricting supplant the racial logic of segregation— that is, that students prefer to associate with members of their own racial group—and replace it with a class-based (albeit still heavily racialized) logic that attempts to justify segregation on behalf of minority students as well as poor and working-class whites by invoking students’ preferences and abilities. First, it is argued that lower-status students would not be well served in school settings with a large proportion of privileged students, because they will feel their own difference more acutely and thus be at a social disadvantage. Second, because some students are coming from inferior schools and thus are more likely to need remedial academic services, combining them with more privileged students will increase the academic diversity of schools to the disadvantage of students at either extreme of the spectrum of academic abilities. Upper-middle-class parents may spearhead efforts to maintain class-distinct schools, but the underlying logic of different social preferences and abilities compels both professional-class and working-class parents to resist efforts at redistricting.
When redistricting attempts to address both race and class disparities, the actions and preferences of parents and administrators become complicated, as illustrated by the recent case in Omaha, Nebraska. An amendment to legislation reiterating the boundaries of the Omaha school system in 2006 divided the system into three districts on racial-ethnic lines (one white district, one black district, one Latino/a district). Supporters of this redistricting effort, among them Nebraska’s sole African American legislator (who authored the amendment), asserted that it would restore local control of student education, increasing the power of black parents and educators to oversee and control the education of their own children. Critics of the move were incensed by the explicitly racial character of the schools and felt that it could not help but impoverish the identifiably minority schools through the continuation of administrative negligence of minority students. Additionally, they pointed to the designations of “our” children as a racial designation as making racial divisions in the city more concrete. Almost immediately, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) moved to block the implementation of the law by filing suit in federal court on the grounds that it violated the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education that ruled against the principle of “separate but equal” educational facilities; later that year, an injunction from the district court temporarily halted the implementation of the law, which is scheduled to take effect in 2008.
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- Rosegrant, Susan and Martin Linsky. 1999. “Pushing the Boundaries: Redistricting the Kentwood Schools.” Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (https://case.hks.harvard.edu/pushing-the-boundaries-redistricting-the-kentwood-schools/).
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