admissions · educational equity · Finding the Right School · School Choice

Do NYC School Zones Violate Federal Law?

(This is a guest post by Tim DeRoche, author of A Fine Line: How Most American Kids Are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools, published on the 66th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.) 

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted issues of educational access in our public schools, since there are stark disparities in the quality of distance learning that different students have access to, depending on their school’s resources, the skill of their teacher, and their home environment. But disparities of access have existed in our schools for many decades prior to the pandemic, persisting long after the Supreme Court’s ruling that public schools must be “available to all on equal terms.”

In my new book, I examine the laws and policies that assign children to elementary schools based on residential address. In practice, many middle-class and lower-income families do not have the opportunity to enroll their children in the most coveted, high-performing public elementary schools, even if those schools are within walking distance of their homes.

Take a look, for example, at PS 8 Robert Fulton in Brooklyn. Only 20% of the students at PS 8 come from low-income families, and almost 80% are proficient in reading. The school shares an attendance zone boundary with PS 307 Daniel Hale Williams, where 85% of the students are low-income, and only 33% are proficient in reading.

Because the schools share an attendance zone boundary, a child on one side of the street will have access to PS 8, and a child on the other side of the street will be turned away. Indeed, many of the students who are assigned to struggling PS 307 actually live closer to high-performing PS 8. But they aren’t allowed to enroll. “We’re zoned for our area,” says a school staffer. “We only take students that are zoned for PS 8.”

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This is not unique to Brooklyn—or even New York City. Take a look at PS 191 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Or Ivanhoe Elementary in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Or Mary Lin Elementary in Atlanta. Lakewood Elementary in Dallas. Penn Alexander in Philadelphia. Lincoln Elementary in Chicago.

In nearly every city the pattern is the same: State law allows (or even requires) the district to draw attendance zones showing who gets to attend which schools. Districts use the lines to determine who can enroll in these elite, high-performing public schools. Young families respond to the policies by cramming into the coveted zone, driving up home prices. Other parents lie about their address to gain access. The divide between the two schools, often just blocks apart, grows over time.

We already have a name for this practice of using your address to determine whether or not you are eligible for valuable government services. We call it redlining. The name comes from government maps created during the New Deal. These maps used the color red to indicate those urban neighborhoods that were “hazardous,” which mostly meant that those areas were majority black or Hispanic. People in these red-shaded portions of the map were ineligible to qualify for some federally subsidized mortgages.

As a part of the research for my book, we compared the attendance zone maps for these elite public schools with the racist redlining maps of the 1930s. What we found will astound you. In many cases, the shape of the attendance zone still mirrors the shape of the “desirable” areas from the 1930s—and still excludes those portions of the neighborhood that have higher concentrations of minorities and immigrants. The map below shows the attendance zone for PS 8 superimposed over the redlining map of the neighborhood from 1938.

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In my book, I make the case that state laws should forbid districts from using a student’s place of residence in the district to determine whether that child can enroll at a specific school. If this solution sounds radical, you might be surprised to learn that many public schools already operate under this constraint. In most states, including New York, public charter schools are not allowed to use a student’s address to determine whether he or she can enroll. Instead, charter schools must use lotteries to determine which students are admitted when they have more applicants than seats. Lotteries have winners and losers, and the results may seem frustrating or even tragic. But a lottery gives every district family a fair chance—an equal opportunity—to enroll their child at a coveted school that could dramatically change his or her life trajectory.

I also point out that many of these elite public schools, including PS 8, have attendance zones that are in clear violation of a federal civil rights law from 1974. As I have written in the journal Education Next, the Equal Educational Opportunities Act prohibits a district from assigning a minority student to a school that is not the nearest to his or her home, if it will enhance segregation. The law was passed precisely because Congress knew that school districts could use the zone lines as a way to create protected public schools that would appeal to upper-middle-class white constituents.

Many minority families who are assigned to struggling PS 307 may be surprised to learn that they have—under federal law—the right to an equal opportunity to enroll in high-performing PS 8, since it is the closest public elementary school to their home. Here’s a short video that uses an animation to explain how the law works:

If you’re interested in these issues and how they play out across the country, please check out my book, or reach out to me on Twitter @timderoche.

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