A closer look at EdBuild’s latest research reveals a high degree of economic segregation between Rust Belt school districts — with serious implications for school funding.
Last week, EdBuild released Fault Lines, a report on school district segregation. In this project, we examined the degree of economic segregation between school districts in America — one border at a time. This segregation has clear implications for school funding: because local property taxes play such a central role in education finance, when one school district has much lower wealth than its neighbor, it also has lesser ability to raise local education dollars.
As part of the report, we identify the 50 most segregating school district borders in America. (Note that our sample excludes certain districts — see the full report for an explanation of our methodology.) More than half the borders that appear on this list of 50 have a common element: they’re in the Rust Belt, the region across the Northeast and Midwest that was once the heart of the American manufacturing industry. As the school districts on either side of these borders have seen their fortunes change, poverty and wealth have become more concentrated within them — and their capacities to raise local education funding have sharply diverged.
Losing the middle class
From upstate New York to western Illinois, our former industrial towns suffered a tremendous decline in the latter part of the 20th century. The story is consistent across many Rust Belt towns: residents who were able left these struggling cities, moving either to the inner-ring suburbs or farther beyond. As a result, the resident poverty rate in each city shot up. Poverty rose somewhat in the immediate area as well — but remained far higher in each city school district than in its neighbors.
And since city populations often declined as their poverty rates rose, it’s apparent that middle-class residents were leaving town. Meanwhile, the remaining residents were often those without the means to leave, and the downturn only left them poorer. This downward spiral is powerfully expressed in an MSNBC feature from last year about Flint, MI:
As the auto industry waned, so did stability and income for thousands of residents. The shockwaves from GM’s steady departure rippled across the city, crippling its tax base as former workers either left town or stayed put, trapped in debt and eventually poverty.
These demographic shifts led to widening gaps in prosperity between neighboring communities — and their associated school districts. The resulting “crippled tax base” affected both city school districts like Milwaukee and smaller, neighborhood districts like Benton Harbor, Michigan.
A comedown in Cleveland
Take a look at how the demographics in and around Cleveland Municipal School District have shifted since 1970:
Between 1970 and 2012, population in the region steadily declined, both in the city proper and in inner-ring suburbs (though the population decline in Cleveland Municipal School District over this period, at 48%, was more than twice as severe as it was in Cleveland’s border districts). A look at the poverty data tells us more: While there were always some very poor neighborhoods within Cleveland, by 2012, concentrated poverty had spread to cover nearly the entire school district. In total, its resident poverty rate doubled, from 17% to 34%. Together, the population and poverty figures signal that the decrease in population was due in large part to the departure of people with means from the city.
Not surprisingly, Cleveland Municipal Schools is an economically isolated district. Its borders with four adjacent districts, labeled on the map above, are among the nation’s 50 most segregating. The city’s property tax base for local education funding is similarly poor when compared with those of its neighbors. The median property in Cleveland Municipal School district was worth $73,100 in 2014, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey. Shaker Heights, meanwhile, had a median property value of $204,600 — almost 180% higher.
People leave and poverty comes to stay
Rochester, New York is another case that merits a closer look.
Over these years, residents left Rochester, and a population decline that had begun in the center of Rochester spread to the city limits and out into neighboring districts.
The increase in local poverty was even more stark. While Rochester certainly had low-income neighborhoods in 1970, many city census tracts at the time had single-digit poverty rates. Today, nearly a third of city residents live below the poverty line. Select parts of the Rochester suburbs have seen increased poverty rates as well, but large swaths of the city’s border districts have been essentially unaffected by the decline. It’s no wonder that Rochester’s borders with three of its four neighbor school districts are among the country’s 50 most segregating.
Rochester also has a property tax base for local education funding far poorer than its neighbors’ — just like Cleveland. The median property within the Rochester City School District was worth $76,600 in 2014. Brighton, right next door, had a median property value more than 130% higher at $178,400.
A common thread
Fully 29 of the country’s 50 most segregating school district borders — almost 60% — are in America’s once-prosperous manufacturing regions. The industrial Northeast and Midwest have suffered over the past four decades, and so have their urban school districts. The result is a swath of economic segregation between school districts across the Rust Belt.
Students living in dense poverty, like those in Cleveland, Rochester, and former industrial cities across the country, face distinct challenges. They are more likely to experience poor health, instability at home, neighborhood violence — and academic challenges like poor early literacy skills and lack of access to preschool.
Their communities are often property-poor. While neighboring districts may have higher home values, that’s of little use to needy students, because a district’s local property tax revenues are generally shared only with its own schools. Most states try to make up the disparity with state funding, but nationally, they fall short: including both state and local funding, once adjusted for area cost of living, high-poverty districts in America receive 21% less funding than the wealthiest ones do. And the greater prosperity in neighboring districts is no help to students trapped inside segregating boundaries; if anything, it merely adds insult to injury that ample resources are only just out of reach.
To read EdBuild’s full report on America’s most segregating school district borders, click here.
To view the interactive web version of the report, click here.