School segregation is one of the most enduring inequities in US public education, reinforcing racial and ethnic gaps in academic and socioeconomic outcomes. School boundaries, whether between districts or between schools within a district, often help perpetuate school segregation in otherwise racially and ethnically diverse cities and neighborhoods.
To understand which school boundaries contribute most to school segregation, we developed measurement tools to analyze school attendance boundaries and district borders. Using the Atlanta metropolitan area as a case study, we highlight how these tools help identify the borders that play the biggest role in perpetuating school segregation in the area.
Our analysis is based on census data on residential demographics and geographic information systems data on school boundaries. We define unequal school boundaries as those in which there are stark demographic differences in the populations living on either side of the boundary, resulting in stark demographic enrollment differences between neighboring schools.
- Atlanta has dozens of school boundaries delineating stark differences in residential composition on either side. In many cases, simply switching the orientation of a school boundary line (e.g., from north to south as opposed to east to west) would lead to large gains in racial and ethnic integration.
- Racial and ethnic disparities occur both between school attendance boundaries in the same district and across school district borders. School attendance boundaries can be changed by school districts, but district borders are a matter of state policy. In the Atlanta metropolitan area, 7 of the 25 most-unequal school boundaries are district borders.
- The most unequal elementary school attendance boundary in the Atlanta metropolitan area lies between Ashford Park Elementary School and John R. Lewis Elementary School in Dekalb County, where a residential road divides the two school attendance zones. Ashford Park, north of the road, serves a neighborhood that is 80 percent white, while John R. Lewis, south of the road, serves a neighborhood that is 70 percent Hispanic and 9 percent Black.
Addressing school segregation requires the work of local policymakers and stakeholders, as well as state and federal governments. Elevating local inequities generated by school boundaries is foundational for further research and discussion toward developing a sustainable solution to racial and ethnic inequality in public education.