Education

New report from Urban Institute details how school attendance boundaries limit opportunity

The research team at Urban Institute dives into the details and consequences of residential assignment in Atlanta.

March 2, 2021

The Charles Koch Institute supports social entrepreneurs who tackle tough problems. One such group of innovators is the research team at Urban Institute working to better understand the consequences of residential assignment in education — how assigning students to schools based on where they live can limit access and opportunity.

The team at Urban released its first case study on residential assignment in Atlanta. An adapted excerpt is included below, but read the whole report at Urban Institute.

From “Education Borders in Atlanta” 
By Tomás Monarrez, David Schonholzer, Carina Chien, and Macy Rainer

Segregation on the basis of race is one of the most enduring and pervasive inequities in U.S. systems of public education. Racial separation in public schools has its root in government-backed racist policy of the early 20th century. While the landmark 1954 Brown Supreme Court decision ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional, over the following decades action at every level of government took place to directly or indirectly ensure that schools stay segregated. Because of this resistance to integration, the average instructional experience that Black and Hispanic children face in public schools today is vastly different from that of white children.

We’ve undertaken a body of work aimed at rigorously characterizing the role of school boundaries in perpetuating school segregation today. We take “school boundaries” broadly defined to include any geographic delineation of access to public education (both school attendance boundaries within districts, and jurisdictional boundaries between school districts). We propose a novel GIS dataset and a measurement methodology to dig deep into the micro-geography of school segregation. Our goal is to pinpoint the worst dividing lines in public education access across the country, individually highlighting the many racial borders that perpetuate school segregation today.

Atlanta is an ideal city to exemplify these disparities. The metro area is fragmented into numerous school districts (36) and over 1,000 attendance boundaries. Atlanta is historically the nucleus of much of the racial conscience and the fight for racial equity in the U.S. Given its history, Atlanta is an ideal place to take a deep dive into the micro-geography of inequality in access to public education.

The most unequal elementary-school attendance boundary in the Atlanta metro area lies between Ashford Elementary school and John R. Lewis Elementary, in Dekalb County School District. On the north side of Drew Valley Road, a residential road which serves as the divisor between these schools’ attendance zones, children are predominantly white and affluent and they attend Ashford, one the top elementary schools in the district in terms of test scores. If one lives south of Drew Valley road, the assigned school is John R. Lewis elementary. The attendance boundary of this school appears gerrymandered to capture the high-density residential blocks located in the southwestern area of the neighborhood, where residents are 70% Hispanic and 9% Black. The Lewis elementary boundary seems to explicitly avoid the inclusion of the large homes with big lawns to the north, which are assigned to Ashford.

The story of two vastly unequal schools with adjacent attendance boundaries is repeated many times over in the Atlanta metro area, and thousands of times in the country as a whole. To an international observer it may appear baffling that even after decades of Supreme Court decisions and local efforts to end the racial segregation of schools, our local governments are still willing to sustain racial borders in the administrative service maps they use for student assignment. To a seasoned advocate for racial equity in the U.S., this may be all too familiar, perhaps even obvious. We believe that a large part of the problem is that these inequities happen at a micro geographic level, making them easy to hide. Therefore, it is necessary to employ quantitative tools to elevate the thousands of invisible lines that create racial borders in our cities.

The Charles Koch Institute inspires and invests in social entrepreneurs developing solutions to America’s most pressing problems. Read more about our support for social entrepreneurs committed to education.