Gerrymandering School Districts

Intergrative Gerrymandering in American School Districts

Gerrymandering and segregation in American School Districts Gerrymandering is a problem commonly discussed in the context of political districts, but rarely in the context of educational districts. The term refers to the unnatural drawing of geopolitical lines in favor of a particular race or class. In the political system this is practiced to geographically segregate different political ideologies, but in the education system it is applied differently. This article seeks to break down the reasons for the sustaining segregation in the American public-school system by examining a number of factors including gerrymandering, geopolitical inequality, and historical segregation. Gerrymandering school district lines can have a positive or negative affect on minority families depending on the intent with which the lines are drawn.

Due to the historical disenfranchisement of minority populations in the United States, there exists segregation of racial communities in the United States. Discrimination in housing policy in the 20th century resulted in the majority of minorities being herded to areas with compromised infrastructure and resources. This causes a number of generational issues, in particular, a segregation of educational access by income. The quality of schools is affected by a number of factors that disadvantage impoverished populations. It is shown that schools performing well on the various bars of measurement are given priority funding and attract higher quality teachers. Such bars include test scores, athletic achievement, attendance, and other factors that permit access to certain grants and donations. The existence of unique pressures and situations in poverse American youth negatively affects their performance and subsequently their access. Therefore, the country being legally integrated so recently leads minority youth into a system ingrained into the country’s geography, a geography that legally determined access to resources based on the color of your skin recently. The shift to remove segregative policies has happened recently, and while many reforms have occurred, the public education system has not yet done so to the fullest extent.

The concurrent thread running throughout this piece is the inequality of access experienced by African-Americans today. In Families As They Really Are, Roquemore and Henderson examine the effects of the Civil Rights movement on black families and American institutions. “Several decades after the passing of Civil Rights legislation, structurally rooted inequalities continue to persist in our social institutions, ranging from public schools, to health care, to the criminal justice system” (100). Specifically, due to the residential inequality pushed by policy throughout the 20th century, generational poverty still has an effect on the black community in particular. Drawing school districts around these areas creates a situation in which impoverished children are put into the same schools, decreasing the amount of achievement-based funding school districts recieve. Due to the disproportionate level of segregation in the United States, geopolitical school district lines often group the same races into the same schools, and the performance metrics of white majority and black majority schools range widely. There is a direct correlation with the average family income of a school and its academic performance, and family income and student performance are both crucial bars used to determine policy and reform in districts and individual schools. However, the article continues to claim that the “simultaneous denial of racial inequalities and widespread desire to move ‘beyond race’ stand in stark contrast to the persistence of race as a determining factor in life chances, opportunities, and mate selection” (100). Many Americans see the removal of segregative policy as the only necessary step to rid our political system of racial inequality. The argument is that “institutionalized racism” cannot exist in institutions not deliberately and legally discriminating against certain groups. However, familial wealth and prime real estate takes generations to build, privileges black families were denied until 50 years ago. This manifests itself in geopolitical ways such as the sustaining segregation seen throughout the American landscape and school system. Aside from the family unit, school serves as the primary social structure for children and the quality of schools correlates with the economic background of its students’ families.

There are numerous approaches to increasing access to quality education for minority youth. On This American Life, Hannah Jones claims that integration is a crucial tool in getting black children the same access as white children. “What the statistics show is that between 1971 which is where the nation really started doing massive desegregation, the achievement gap between white and black youth was 40 points. In 1988, which was the peak of integration in the United States, that dropped to just 18 points” (Hannah-Jones). While this may seem obvious, concentrated efforts to integrate schools has decreased since the 1988 peak, and while the policies before this did permanently change the racial landscape of the classroom, Jones argues that it was not carried out to the necessary level. She does not hold the belief that the positive effect of integration is allowing black students and white students to interact, but simply that the same facilities and instruction are available to all parties. She states that “integration gets black kids into the same facilities as white kids and it gets them access to the same things that these kids get, quality teachers and quality instruction” (Hannah-Jones). The reason deliberate integration is a route that should be considered is that deliberate segregation only ended recently and the geographic implications of that are still prevalent. Simply put, residential location is determined by income. There is a large gap in the average income in Black Americans and White Americans, and 50 years ago many areas were segregated by law and many remain segregated despite the removal of those laws. Determining schooling based on geography inherently sustains the segregative nature of housing into the public education system. One approach to increasing economic and racial diversity in schools is irregularly drawing districts, also called gerrymandering, but that method can also be used to propagate segregation further.

Meredith Richards has done significant research into the concept of gerrymandering educational districts and has uncovered interesting data about the effects of these policies. In one study she samples 5,290 school attendance zones in 663 school districts, 154 metropolitan statistical areas, and 43 states to measure the effects of gerrymandering on the racial makeup of schools. She found that “gerrymandering is generally less segregative or integrative in school districts that are currently under desegregation orders and is often more segregative in districts that have been released from their desegregation orders than in districts never subject to desegregation orders” (Richards 30). Due to the existence of policy orchestrating desegregation, irregularly drawn district lines seem to have little correlation to segregation or integration in these areas. However, gerrymandered districts in areas without existing desegregation policies tend to result in increased levels of segregation in schools. A contributing factor to this is pushback from district residents resisting the changing economic and racial changes in their communities. “Moreover, gerrymandering is particularly segregative in districts experiencing rapid increases in diversity” (Richards 30). A later study carried out by Richards and Stroub further examines the idea of gerrymandering as a tool for segregation. Their data shows “that gerrymandering is particularly severe in predominantly White schools in areas experiencing rapid diversification and growth in their non-White population” (Stroub 22). Instances such as this display the traditionally accepted motives of gerrymandering, an effort to redraw lines at the expense of another group. This type of gerrymandering serves the purpose of segregating school districts to decrease diversity even in areas where a diverse school would be properly reflective of the residential landscape. “Moreover, we find that gerrymandering is particularly acute in areas with low levels of segregation, suggesting that gerrymandering may be a tool for maintaining segregation in more integrated districts.” (Stroub 22). This reveals the major polarizing issue with the gerrymandering of school districts. Districting schools unnaturally in an effort to change the racial dynamic of a school to not reflect a geographic population is a method that can have differing effects depending on the intention with which the districts are redrawn. One effect, as described above, disproportionately segregates schools, but gerrymandering can also be used as a tool for integration.

In his entry in Social Science Research, Salvatore Saporito builds off Richards’ research to examine positive applications of gerrymandering educational districts. “The data shows that, on average, school districts with the most irregularly-shaped attendance zones have lower levels of racial segregation than comparable school districts with highly compact attendance areas even after accounting for residential segregation” (Saporito 312). The regularly shaped segregated areas in The United States tends to result in educational segregation in the absence of gerrymandering, but subverting these traditionally drawn lines has the potential to increase school diversity and educational access to minorities. Saporito continues, claiming “these empirical findings are new to the literature on “educational gerrymandering” and stand in stark contrast to studies that argue ‘gerrymandered’ attendance zones ‘generally segregate’ children by race” (Saporito 312). This being a reference to Richards’ work on the subject, Saporito makes the case that there are positive outcomes to the appropriate use of gerrymandering. While this system still attempts to change the racial dynamic of a school to not reflect a geographic population and advantage a particular group, when used in with the intention of integration instead of segregation, the effects are vastly different under the same technique. Gerrymandering does not inherently disenfranchise as it can be used as a way to increase equality of access in the American public-school system.

Education is the first step to giving people a chance at competing in the professional world. American citizens have a right to equal access to public education and resources, but the geographically imbedded system of school districting separates schools by income and race. As the country continues to recover from segregation, the education system must take into account the geopolitical factors plaguing specific areas of the country. Increasing rates of diversity in areas should not result in irregularly drawing lines to exclude these communities and high levels of segregation should not result in the regular drawing of lines due to its tendency to carry that segregation into the classroom. Emphasis on economically/racially inclusive public schools is crucial to the reform from historical segregation. The American education system must recognize these historical factors and make a concentrated effort to offer quality education to all Americans regardless of social status, even if it means gerrymandering district lines to subvert segregated areas.


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Works Cited

Hannah-Jones, N. (Guest). (2015). This American Life [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from live-with

Richards, M. P. (2014). The Gerrymandering of School Attendance Zones and the Segregation of Public Schools: A Geospatial Analysis. American Educational Research Journal, 51 (6), 1119-1157.

Rockquemore, K., & Henderson, L. (2015). Interracial Families In Post Civil Rights America. Families As They Really Are (98-112).

Saporito, S. (2017). Irregularly-shaped school attendance zones and racial integration. Social Science Research, 64299.

Stroub, K. J., & Richards, M. P. (2017). Suburbanizing Segregation? Changes in Racial/Ethnic Diversity and the Geographic Distribution of Metropolitan School Segregation, 2002- 2012. Teachers College Record, 119 (7).