Funding Education Opportunity: Public school boundaries still suffer from the effects of educational redlining
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Funding Education Opportunity Newsletter

Funding Education Opportunity: Public school boundaries still suffer from the effects of educational redlining

Plus: Pennsylvania private school scholarship proposal, Tennessee private school choice bill dies, and more.

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional. 

While public schools can no longer discriminate against students based on their race, unfortunately, they continue to use school district and attendance area boundaries to exclude or limit students’ opportunities based on where they live.

Oftentimes, the only way for students to access higher-quality public schools than the ones they’re assigned to is by moving inside their attendance boundaries. However, this option is only available to families who can afford to do so since housing costs typically increase based on their proximity to better schools. 

In some cases, families lie about their home address–also known as address sharing–so their children can go to better schools. But falsifying an address can carry major risks, including prison time, in the 24 states that criminalize it. 

Unfortunately, living on the wrong side of a school boundary isn’t just bad luck. Even today, schools and governments gerrymander boundaries to exclude students they perceive as undesirable. 

Moreover, this practice carries an unsavory past since gerrymandered boundaries sometimes reflect the lingering effects of redlining–now illegal racist zoning policies.

Nearly a century ago, federal agencies drew 239 color-coded maps identifying the lending risks associated with particular neighborhoods. However, eligibility for these loans was based on varying demographic factors, including race.

Neighborhoods that housed large minority populations were often color-coded red and marked as “hazardous.” The Federal Housing Administration’s official Underwriting Manual even went so far as to state that redlining policies would help prevent “large numbers of inharmonious racial groups” from attending the same schools.

While a series of federal laws eventually outlawed housing redlining, many school boundaries still reinforce the old redlined boundaries, limiting students’ public education options. 

For example, the map in Figure 1 shows the attendance areas for Cranbrook and Barrington Road Elementary Schools in Columbus, Ohio, ranked 2,146th and 165th overall respectively by the Ohio 2023 Performance Index

The high-performing Barrington Elementary School’s neighborhoods were exclusively zoned as Blue or Green, the best possible ratings provided by the federal government, back in the 1930s. Meanwhile, most of the neighborhoods assigned to Cranbrook Elementary Schools, at that time, were rated as “hazardous” (red) or “declining” (yellow).

Figure 1: School Redlining in Columbus Ohio

Source: National Center for Education Statistics; “Mapping Inequality,”

The student populations of these public schools are still divided by race and socioeconomic status. Yet these boundaries block students from attending schools that are closer to their homes or that are a better fit. 

For instance, some students living along King Avenue near the boundary line are only about a mile from Barrington Elementary, but they are assigned to Cranbrook, which is three times that distance.

This is just one of the many examples that show how broken public school assignment is nationwide.

A new report by yes. Every kid. Showcases how some policymakers have tried to ameliorate these barriers so students’ public school options aren’t solely determined by their geographic location. Specifically, the report highlights three key policies that can expand public school access today:

  • Strong open enrollment laws, which let students attend any public school with available seats, have been passed in 16 states;
  • States should not criminalize address sharing, as 26 states no longer do;
  • One state, Idaho, prohibits address discrimination which means that school districts cannot select students based on where they live.

Weakening these barriers is a popular policy, as 78% of school parents support strong open enrollment laws according to March polling by EdChoice. Moreover, six states, most with bipartisan political support, strengthened their open enrollment laws last year, letting students attend any public school with open seats, regardless of where they live. 

While 43 states permit some sort of public school student transfer, most of these laws are weak and don’t prioritize allowing students to get to better public schools. Brown vs. Board of Education was seven decades ago, and state policymakers still need to take important steps to make schools more accessible to all students by weakening the barriers that residential assignment imposes on families so students can attend schools that are the right fit.

From the states

In other important education and school choice developments across the country, Missouri gets a private school scholarship program, and Pennsylvania legislators renew sparring over private school choice proposals.

In Pennsylvania, a proposal would provide private school scholarships to the approximately 250,000 students assigned to the bottom 15% of school districts. Scholarship recipients in elementary school would receive awards valued at $5,000, while those in high school would receive $10,000.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed Senate Bill 727, a statewide private school scholarship program, into law. Eligible students include those whose families’ incomes are 200% to 300% of “the household income limit for Free and Reduced-price Lunches,” according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This bill also raises the starting salary for new Missouri teachers from $25,000 annually to $40,000, a 60% increase.

Two bills moving through the Louisiana legislature–House Bill 745 and Senate Bill 313–would establish education savings accounts if signed into law. Parents of eligible scholarship recipients could use these accounts to pay for approved education expenses, such as private school tuition. Governor Jeff Landry supports these proposals and held two townhall meetings this month to advocate for them.

What to watch

In Texas, 38 House Democrats asked Gov. Greg Abbott to call another special session to increase public school funding. The governor, however, wasn’t keen to accommodate the party that joined with Abbott’s fellow Republicans, who control both state chambers, to block his voucher proposals multiple times last year. Gov. Abbott noted his preferred bill would have “added $6 billion in school funding, including teacher pay raises and additional funding for school safety. All of the representatives who signed this letter voted to kill that package.” Gov. Abbott also pointed out that some school districts’ budget shortfalls were due partly to the loss of federal revenues as the emergency COVID-19 relief funds taper off. The Texas legislature is not scheduled to reconvene until Jan. 2025.

Although Gov. Bill Lee’s private school choice proposal died in the overwhelmingly Republican-controlled Tennessee legislature; he vowed to renew efforts in 2025. In fact, Lee said he’d pair an expansive voucher program with what The Tennessee Conservative called “largest funding increases for public schools in state history.”

Recommended reading 

Report: The Broken Promise of Brown v Board of Ed
Available to All and Bellwether Education

“There is no utopian solution to the problem of public school admissions, and every possible enrollment system will pose the risk of abuse and difficult issues of implementation. That’s why the law is so important: to establish the standard of equal access to the public schools and to provide for the enforcement of that standard.”

When Public Schools Keep Certain Students Out — or Make Them Pay to Attend
Jude Schwalbach at The74

“Of the districts charging tuition, the average fee is about $11,000 per student per school year, the Reason Foundation investigation found. That’s $11,000 annually to attend a supposedly public school. At least 12 districts charge $10,000 per transfer annually, while nine districts charge less.”

America Has Too Many Schools
Sara Randazzo and Matt Barnum in The Wall Street Journal

“Between the 2019-20 and 2022-23 school year, urban schools lost nearly 850,000 students, or 5.5% of enrollment, according to an analysis of the most recent federal data by the Brookings Institution, done at The Wall Street Journal’s request. During that time, the number of school buildings has remained virtually unchanged—leaving more hollowed-out schools.”