Racial and ethnic segregation in schools affects the lives of almost all American students. For decades, urban economists have espoused theories that frame segregation as the product of individual household decisions. But institutional factors, like school district boundaries, can have just as big a role.
Since the infamous 1974 Milliken v. Bradley decision, school district boundaries have acted as a barrier to diversity and equitable funding in schools, and today, more than two-thirds of school segregation in metropolitan areas is attributable to school district boundaries. To understand what this looks like on the ground, we examined elementary schools in the Hartford, Connecticut, metropolitan area. Though the Hartford region has made efforts to desegregate schools by creating magnet schools and a regional school choice program, the demographics of many neighboring districts still look drastically different.
In a recent feature, we developed a metric of how much segregation a given school contributes to its district. The Segregation Contribution Index (SCI) considers the racial and ethnic composition of a school relative to that of the school district. To understand the role of school districts in perpetuating or mitigating segregation, we computed a school district SCI, which compares the composition of the district to that of the metropolitan area. The district SCI allows us to glean how sorting patterns across district boundaries play a role in the metro area’s segregation.
School district boundaries exacerbate racial and ethnic segregation in the Hartford metropolitan area
In the Hartford area (we look at the entire Hartford metropolitan statistical area (PDF), though we acknowledge this includes a large area beyond Hartford), Black and Hispanic students account for 38 percent of the population, but the share of Black or Hispanic students in each district varies. The chart below plots each district’s elementary school SCI against the district’s share of Black or Hispanic students. Though Black and Hispanic (PDF) students face different barriers to success in the education system, we consider them together for this analysis because these students are the most likely to be negatively affected by segregation.
Forty-six districts in the Hartford metro area have lower shares of Black and Hispanic people than the metro area, and only nine have higher shares. The districts to the left of the gray line contribute to the metro area’s total segregation because of a higher share of predominantly white students (although this also includes smaller groups), whereas districts on the right contribute because of a higher concentration of Black and Hispanic students.
Consider two neighboring districts: Wethersfield and Hartford. Wethersfield is a suburban school district; 20 percent of its 1,529 K–5 students are Black or Hispanic. Hartford, despite being directly north of Wethersfield, is 87 percent Black or Hispanic with 9,620 K–5 students. The 46 districts to the left of the line are similar to Wethersfield: small, suburban, and with a greater share of white people relative to the metro area. Eight out of 9 urban districts in the Hartford metro area have predominantly Black or Hispanic populations and are located near districts where these populations are underrepresented (such as East Hartford, Middletown, and Learn).
The metropolitan area comprises numerous small districts and a few with large, predominantly Black and Hispanic populations. This fragmentation of public school systems, which could be addressed by state policy, perpetuates racial and ethnic division in the Hartford area. Each district left of the line appears to have a low SCI, but combined, these primarily white and suburban districts contribute a lot to segregation in the Hartford area.
The chart below shows the disparity in racial and ethnic makeup by urbanicity and district size, which has important implications for the racial and ethnic opportunity gap in education. The figure below shows that the largely Black and Hispanic districts that contribute most to segregation are often urban (left panel) and more populous (right panel), and districts with a larger share of white people tend to be suburban and small. Research has shown that smaller school districts tend to be better funded, leading to improved educational outcomes.
School regionalization is not a silver bullet for segregation between districts
A school regionalization bill (PDF) proposed by Connecticut lawmakers last year provides a useful case study for examining the potential of district reorganization to address school segregation. It would have applied to 31 of 57 school districts in the Hartford area, most of which are small suburban or rural districts. Though the primary impetus for the bill was administrative efficiency, desegregation could have been a side effect. This bill would have required school districts with fewer than 2,000 students to join a new or existing regional school district.
Because the bill only required that school districts with fewer than 2,000 student merge, a likely possibility would have been the consolidation of small school districts with larger white populations. But it is also possible that small districts with larger white populations could have consolidated with small or large districts with larger Black and Hispanic populations.
In the chart below, many small and predominantly white districts—East Granby (13.5 percent Black and Hispanic), East Windsor (31.4 percent), and Windsor Locks (28.7 percent)—neighbor Windsor district, which has a primarily Black and Hispanic population (57.1 percent). Combining these four school districts into one would create a single, large district with 41 percent Black and Hispanic students, which is much closer to the metro area’s 37 percent.
The Hartford example demonstrates that adjusting school district boundaries can promote school integration if policymakers are intentional about how they draw the lines. In light of growing evidence that educational outcomes correlate to differences in school funding and race and ethnicity, wide gaps in racial and ethnic makeup across districts in the same geographic area should be a concern for equity-focused stakeholders. The potential for a school’s racial and ethnic diversity is directly limited by the racial and ethnic makeup of its local public school system. Whether or not consolidating school districts is the answer, policymakers looking to address school integration cannot overlook the role of district boundaries.