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Can School Policy Become Housing Policy?: Walking Across the City-Suburban Line in Memphis

by Genevieve Siegel-Hawley - October 17, 2011

The Memphis area has recently taken steps to bridge the traditionally divisive impact of district boundary lines through a city-suburban school system merger. What still remains to be seen, however, is whether the newly enlarged school system will craft policies that take advantage of the absence of the city/suburban district line. If school officials do so, they will be recognizing a critical but often overlooked principle: when thinking about student assignment across a broadly-conceived community, school policy can, in some ways, become housing policy. This commentary examines the relationship between school and residential segregation, using the example of Memphis to explore several avenues for fostering a more cohesive consideration of school and housing policy.

Change is afoot in Memphis area schools.

Just last month, following a year of intense political wrangling, a federal judge ruled that the two school systems in Memphis and surrounding Shelby County—one urban, one suburban—must prepare for an impending merger.

The consolidation was triggered by the Memphis school board's vote to dissolve the city school system, clearing a path towards being folded into the Shelby County district (Leitsinger, 2011). But the school board’s move was prompted by an earlier Shelby County plan to seek special district status; a request that seemed increasingly likely to pass in the Republican-controlled state legislature. Under Tennessee law, special district status comes with important revenue-sharing implications. Being granted such status would have meant that Shelby County was eligible to withhold important tax revenue from the Memphis school system (Leitsinger, 2011).  

Despite the initial political turmoil around the merger, once created, the consolidated district will diminish the segregating impact of school district boundary lines—powerful but invisible constructs that remain among the most fundamental barriers to equal educational opportunity today (Clotfelter, 2004; Eaton, 2001; Grant, 2009; Reardon & Yun, 2002; Ryan, 2010; Wells et al., 2009). What still remains to be seen, however, is whether the newly enlarged school system will craft policies that take advantage of the absence of the traditionally divisive city/suburban line. If school officials do so, they will be recognizing a critical but often overlooked principle: when thinking about student assignment across a broadly-conceived community, school policy can, in some ways, become housing policy.

The Relationship between Residential and School Segregation

School segregation is related to housing segregation, largely because most districts rely on the common practice of drawing school attendance zones to correspond with proximate neighborhoods. District lines are layered on top of these zones, forming a tangled system of boundaries that splice metropolitan areas into racially and socioeconomically identifiable communities. Such actions reinforce a cyclical relationship between school and housing segregation. Families with resources talk about the ability to “buy into” a better school zone or district, based on the assumption that a wealthy neighborhood means good schools (Holme, 2002; Johnson, 2006; Shapiro, 2004). The reasoning behind this line of thinking remains largely accurate. Property taxes continue to make up a significant portion of local education funds (Kozol, 1992; Ryan, 2010) and are related to home values. Housing prices are in turn linked to school districts and school zones (Chiodo, Hernández-Murillo, & Owyang; 2010; Kane, Riegg, & Staigeret, 2006). These circumstances bolster the relationship between educational and housing choices, making highly resourced schools and districts harder for lower-income families to access.  

Now consider for a moment the function of school desegregation. At its core, desegregation is an education policy designed to disentangle the school-housing relationship through a variety of student assignment methods, choice-based programs and transportation strategies. Indeed, social science evidence, which has long confirmed myriad harms related to the isolation of students by race and poverty and, alternatively, numerous benefits associated with carefully structured diverse schools (see, e.g., Linn & Welner, 2007), has also revealed an interesting connection between school desegregation policies and patterns of residential segregation.

The Power of Metropolitan-Wide School Desegregation Strategies

For example, close study of districts with city-suburban arrangements similar to the merger underway in Memphis reveals that between 1970 and 1990, regions with metro-wide school desegregation plans experienced decreases in housing segregation at more than twice the national average (Frankenberg, 2005; Housing Scholars Brief, 2007; M. Orfield, 2006). Areas with comprehensive metropolitan desegregation plans also contained the most stably integrated schools (G. Orfield, 2001).

Metropolitan school desegregation plans are linked to these positive developments because they can help blunt the segregating impact of school district boundary lines. In short, a quick exodus to nearby, less diverse school systems becomes more difficult (G. Orfield, 2001). And as long as the student assignment plan remains consistent over time, the metropolitan community comes to understand that movement to any part of area governed by the desegregation policy will result in a similarly integrated school— and thus be connected to the kinds of rich social and academic benefits that flow from those environments (Powell, 2005). This community understanding disrupts the conventional link between school and housing segregation in the metro area.

More recently, a study examining patterns of segregation in the Chattanooga area before and after the city-suburban school merger found significantly faster declines in both school and residential racial isolation following the merger (Siegel-Hawley, 2011). Undertaking what may well be an important model for Memphis area officials to consider, education stakeholders in the consolidated Chattanooga-Hamilton County school system committed to expanding an existing system of magnet schools. Redistricting data from the new U.S. Census indicated that black-white housing segregation (as measured by the commonly-used Dissimilarity Index) fell by approximately 11 percent in the decade following the 1997 school system merger (from 2000 to 2010), while federal school enrollment statistics showed that black-white school segregation declined by 20 percent over the same period. By way of comparison, between 1990 and 2000, those same figures were roughly 4 and 8 percent, respectively (Siegel-Hawley, 2011).

Beyond the specific mechanisms that help promote swifter declines in housing segregation across metropolitan school districts, there's a basic theory behind the connection between school desegregation strategy and decreases in levels of housing segregation. Recall from above the mention of certain benefits associated with diverse schooling experiences. One of the more important long-term outcomes associated with attending integrated schools is a heightened propensity to seek out racially diverse experiences later in life (Braddock, 2009; Wells & Crain, 1994). In other words, students who were the products of diverse K-12 settings may be more likely to attend integrated colleges and live in integrated neighborhoods—setting in motion a similar set of experiences for their own offspring (Mickelson, 2011).

Why should we care about these perpetuating effects? The reasons are manifold, but are directly connected to our nation's commitment to both providing all children with equal educational opportunities and preparing them for the increasingly diverse, inter-connected world in which they will live. While the first reports from the 2010 census count show that black-white segregation continued to fall over the last decade, levels remain high and the pace of decline glacially slow (Frey, 2010). Given these patterns, one of the tremendous benefits of a school integration strategy is that it can be designed and implemented within a year.

Why School and Housing Policy Should be Considered Together

Ideally of course, efforts to combat school and housing segregation would go hand in hand. The truth is that school desegregation policy has historically carried the burden of dismantling the spatial ravages of nearly a century of de jure segregation in the South, along with pervasive de facto segregation in the rest of the country (Orfield, 1981). Under certain circumstances, those efforts were remarkably successful in combating both school and housing segregation. But just imagine what could be possible if school and housing integration policies were joined in a comprehensive, sustainable manner.

Let's return to our example of the Memphis area, where the task of bridging the urban/suburban boundary has already begun, and play this idea out. Suppose the newly elected metro-wide school board, building on the successes of nearby Chattanooga, sought to create a system of regional magnet schools that would attract students from a range of backgrounds and neighborhoods. Imagine further that Memphis area officials applied for and received federal funding to help the new magnet programs provide critical means of access for all students, including a broad-based publicity strategy, free transportation and admissions based largely on open enrollment or lottery policies (Frankenberg & Siegel-Hawley, 2010). Or the metro school board might glance north towards Louisville-Jefferson County, Kentucky, where on-going school integration efforts have been based on a combination of family choice and district assignment polices that seek to create diverse learning opportunities through careful analysis of neighborhood demographics (Coleman, Negrón, & Lipper, 2011). Indeed, such efforts may be even more powerful than Chattanooga’s system of magnet schools (which do not presently serve all students in the district) due to the more comprehensive nature of Louisville’s student assignment plan.

In addition to these school-based policy efforts, let’s suppose that the metro school board in Memphis reached out to area housing officials. The two groups came together and crafted an innovative plan to deconcentrate school and neighborhood isolation through the use of housing vouchers (like Section 8) that helped disadvantaged families access higher opportunity neighborhoods and schools (DeBray-Pelot & Frankenberg, 2010). Specifically, metro school board members helped housing officials identify school feeder areas where heightened diversity would be beneficial to enrollment patterns and where capacity was not an issue. And once the neighborhood reflected in a general way the overall diversity of the metro area, all students in the school zone could become exempt from the Louisville-type student assignment plan. Alternatively, if the district chose to adopt Chattanooga's magnet school policy, residents of diverse neighborhoods might gain heightened access to their closest magnet program (provided the preferences did not destabilize the magnetic capabilities of the school). Should the district need to build new schools to house an expanding population, housing officials would be consulted. School site selection and accompanying attendance zone boundaries could then be based, at least in part, on an affirmative consideration for neighborhood diversity levels. In gentrifying areas of the city, similarly concerted efforts might work to stabilize neighborhood transition by making the nearby school an attractive environment. In this fashion, school and housing officials could incentivize the creation of stable, integrated schools and neighborhoods.

These ideas form the basis of broader, national lessons that we might draw from what has been--as of yet anyway--an imaginative exercise inspired by early developments of enormous potential in the Memphis area. The specific parameters may vary in different contexts, but the underlying goals should be similar. Ultimately, incoming members of the new Memphis area school board should recognize that metropolitan school diversity strategies can be used to further residential integration. But they should also take significant steps to bridge the customary gap between school and housing policy efforts. Given the underlying dynamics of the school-housing relationship, it is unconscionable that there has not been a more concerted effort to bring together officials from two areas that often work in isolation from one another, in order to more powerfully counteract forces of segregation and inequality. That must change, and Memphis just might show us the way.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 17, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16563, Date Accessed: 12/7/2021 5:17:00 PM

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About the Author
  • Genevieve Siegel-Hawley
    Virginia Commonwealth University
    E-mail Author
    GENEVIEVE SIEGEL-HAWLEY is an assistant professor in the Department of Education Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Education. Her research interests focus on examining the impact of segregation and resegregation in American schools, along with exploring viable policy options for a truly integrated society.
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