Posted on April 26, 2024

Strict School Zones Are Reinforcing Inequality, New Study Finds

Russell Contreras, Axios, April 24, 2024

Rigid school attendance zones allow districts to legally keep many students of color and low-income families out of coveted, elite K-12 public schools, a new study finds.

Why it matters: The U.S. will soon mark the 70th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended legal segregation in public schools. Yet, researchers found growing inequality in school access as the nation has become more diverse, according to the new study by nonpartisan education watchdog Available to All.

  • School segregation between Black and white students has returned to 1968 levels.

Driving the news: American families have weak legal protections around public school access, according to the study.

  • Researchers found that legal discrimination and non-neutral enrollment policies — rules that allow districts to use addresses or selective criteria for admission — are common and enshrined in state laws.
  • School officials exploit loopholes to cherry-pick students and even criminally prosecute low-income families that try to send their children to elite public schools outside of their assigned boundaries, the report said.

Zoom in: The report found examples of loopholes involving parents forced to pay “tuition” for their child to attend a public school outside their district of residence.

  • Individual public schools also can be captured by interest groups or small groups of parents.


How it works: School districts set boundaries and assign schools generally connected to families’ neighborhoods.

  • All 50 states and the District of Columbia allow or require school assignments to be based on students’ residential addresses.
  • Because wealthier families have privileged access to the best public schools via “educational redlining” according to the report, it is often difficult for other schools to attract these families, creating a vast inequality of resources.