Virginia Walden Ford and her twin sister, Harrietta, were among the first 130 students to desegregate the high schools in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Ms. Ford recalls that her new high school had amenities of which she had “never dreamed,” such as a “huge library,” textbooks less than a decade old, and microscopes for everyone in the science lab.
It was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that gave Ms. Ford and many others access to better opportunities for education. Yet, education opportunity remains uneven to this day, in part due to policies in the 1930s by government agencies like the Home Owners’ Loan Corp. and the Federal Housing Administration.
The HOLC and FHA began conditioning access to federally backed home loans on the perceived economic health of a neighborhood and used demographic factors such as race to reach those decisions. The HOLC created 239 color-coded maps of U.S. cities: desirable areas were denoted in green and blue; yellow or red areas were deemed “hazardous” or “declining.” Families living in the red and yellow zones were less likely to be approved for the new HOLC loans, which provided low-interest loans with 15-year repayment schedules.
In the 1960s, redlining was outlawed in the housing sector, but the effects linger in education. Attendance zone boundaries—used by school districts to assign students to public schools—often retain the shape of the redlined boundaries of the 1930s.
For instance, in Columbus, Ohio, students living east of I-71 are zoned for Como Elementary School, while children west of the interstate are assigned to Clinton Elementary School. Como’s attendance zone comprises neighborhoods designated in the ‘30s as “definitely declining” while Clinton’s surrounding neighborhoods were labeled as “best” or “still desirable.”
As Tim DeRoche shows in his book “A Fine Line,” the difference between the two schools—just a mile apart—is stark. Only 44% of students enrolled at Como are proficient in reading, whereas 87% of Clinton’s are proficient.
The median home value in Hudson Street / Indianola Avenue—the neighborhood with the lowest home value inside the Clinton attendance zone—is $227,979. In Como’s school zone, it is $94,364. This school dynamic is seen in districts across the country.
Many families buy access to high-performing “public” schools by purchasing homes in the desired school zone. A 2019 report from the Senate Joint Economic Committee found that the median home value of properties in the same ZIP code as high-performing schools was four times the value of properties in ZIP codes with low-performing schools.
Access to good public education should not be conditioned by wealth and home value, especially since public schools in the same school district, regardless of zone, are supported by the same tax base.
Why should families who support all district schools with their taxes be forced to send their children to geographically assigned schools that perform poorly or cannot meet their children’s learning needs?
States and localities could remedy this broken system by eliminating attendance zone boundaries. That would effectively create open enrollment, allowing families to enroll their children in any public school within their school district. In the case of oversubscription at a particular school, a lottery would determine admission.
Moreover, protectionist school districts should not be able to opt out of open-enrollment policies. This is a policy Florida has successfully implemented, and which allows children to attend any school in the state’s 67 school districts.
These reforms, coupled with other options to expand private school choice (such as education savings accounts), would end the public school monopoly. Education dollars would follow students instead of institutions, enabling children to select into learning environments that are the right fit for them.
It is time to decouple schooling from housing. Assigned, geographic attendance zones remain anachronistic barriers to opportunity and social capital. The education system of the future should allow students to attend the school of their choice, not prop up particular institutions at the expense of others.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times