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Three of America's most segregating school district borders are in Michigan, report says

Aug 23, 2016

Today, the most economically segregating school district border in the nation is the one that separates Detroit Public Schools from the Grosse Pointe Public School system.

That's according to a new report released Tuesday by EdBuild, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that studies school funding.

A typical school district border in the U.S. separates a pair of districts whose student-aged poverty rates differ by seven percentage points, according to the report.

The difference between DPS and Grosse Pointe?

42.7 percentage points.

In Detroit schools, almost half of students live at or below the poverty line. In neighboring Grosse Pointe, it's just about 7%.

For the report, called Fault Lines, EdBuild looked at school-aged child poverty rates of all 33,500 school district borders in the country.

Kurt Metzger is founder of Data Driven Detroit and mayor of Pleasant Ridge, Michigan. He told The Detroit News:

While socioeconomic ‘fault lines’ between Detroit and its neighboring communities (and school districts) have existed for decades, none has been greater, or more resistant to change, than the border between Detroit and Grosse Pointe. While the recession of the last decade triggered a migration out of Detroit into suddenly cheaper homes and apartments in many suburbs, the communities that make up the Grosse Pointe district were largely shielded from change. While this increased the low-income population in many bordering districts, the Grosse Pointe School District was immune to these changes, due to a highly educated population (able to weather the downturn) and a stable owner-occupied housing stock that maintained its high value. In addition, the district’s reputation for strong residency enforcement and pushback on school choice sent a message to Detroiters that was not one of welcome.

The history of the divide between the two districts goes back more than four decades.

In 1970, the NAACP sued the state of Michigan, arguing that Detroit's schools were still unofficially segregated more than a decade after Brown v. Board. The District Court judge who heard the case, Milliken v. Bradley, ordered a desegregation plan that would involve bussing students between mostly-black Detroit and its largely-white, neighboring suburban districts, including Grosse Pointe.

The suburban districts refused to take part, and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to have the plan overturned. And in 1974, the Court ruled in a 5-to-4 decision to overturn it. According to the report:

In that case, the Court held that desegregation could not be ordered across the school district lines drawn by state and local governments. In essence, the Court declared school district borders to be impenetrable, even when cross-district efforts are necessary to achieve meaningful integration. When the case was filed in 1970, the poverty rate among all residents of Grosse Pointe was 3%. Detroit’s poverty rate was five times that. Things have only worsened since; Detroit’s poverty rate is now 7.5 times Grosse Pointe’s.

Ben Justice is an education historian at Rutgers University's Graduate School of Education. He tells NPR the Milliken decision was “ridiculous." Justice said:

The court said that the school district as a concept is basically untouchable. To argue that where people live, particularly by the 1960s, was not the result of racist government policy was simply a lie. Public policy and private industry conspired to create neighborhoods where people could or could not live.

He says school district lines were, and remain, an extension of that discrimination.

But not everyone believes the report is valid. Greg Bowens founded the Grosse Pointes-Harper Woods NAACP Branch. He criticized the report and EdBuild. Bowens told The Detroit News:

This effort by EdBuild seems like a thinly veiled attempt to advance the charter school movement by using racial stereotypes couched in poverty rates as a foil to free up more money to fund privately managed charter schools at the expense of traditional public school systems.

Two other pairs of Michigan school districts made the study's list of 50 neighboring school systems with the biggest income gaps. Flint City School District and Swartz Creek Community Schools ranked 26. Benton Harbor Area Schools and St. Joseph Public Schools ranked 36.

Here at State of Opportunity, we talk a lot about the achievement gaps that persist between poor, often-minority students and their more affluent counterparts. And we've explored ways to help them catch up.

But EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia tells the Detroit Free Press fixing the problem is deeper than talking about bringing more resources into struggling districts. Sibilia said:

You can tinker around the edges, Legislatures can do more, but if you’re going to take on borders, you're going to have to go through the courts. That most likely means a meaningful challenge to Milliken.

You can read the full EdBuild report here.