In District Consolidations, States Leave Poor Residents Adrift, Study Says

By Daarel Burnette II — July 24, 2018 2 min read
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States’ failure to intervene when communities attempt to consolidate or split up districts can leave poor students with fewer resources and worsen the achievement gap, a new report from the advocacy group EdBuild finds. And in instances in which poor communities are isolated from districts with wealthier tax bases, states have little legal recourse to compel communities to merge with each other.

Across the nation, several wealthy, white communities, such as in Shelby County, Tennessee and Jefferson County, Alabama, have attempted in recent years to either split from their neighboring poor and majority Latino and black communities or to consolidate with other surrounding wealthy, white districts. This process, which is racially volatile and legally contentious, often ends up packing poor and minority students into a single set of schools.

States’ laws surrounding consolidation often exacerbate this problem, the study, which was released Tuesday, found.

Schools are increasingly reliant on districts’ property tax rates and, as wealthy communities consolidate, poor parents are forced to send their children to schools in districts that have low property value, a problem that can compound itself over time.

Only nine states have laws that give states the power to merge districts across borders in a manner that would provide relief to children in struggling communities, the study finds. The majority of states, 39 in all, have given state officials no power to trigger school district mergers. Only 25 states, the study found, offer financial incentives for mergers, and most incentives are modest; and even the most generous ones often fail to spur consolidations for the districts that need it most.

“In a funding system that relies on local wealth, changes in the economic condition of a community can lead to significant financial distress,” said EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia. “Across the country, states are leaving the futures of children in our neediest communities to the whims of their neighbors and the will of the wealthy.”

EdBuild, an advocacy organization that pushes for more equitable school funding , suggests that states close funding gaps between wealthy and poor communities with state dollars. The highest-poverty districts in each state, those with the most out-of-school and in-school support needs, have 6 percent less state and local funding than states’ wealthiest districts, the study points out.

The study highlights Midland, Penn. and Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where states failed to intervene as poor communities for decades were cut off from wealthy tax bases just a handful of miles away.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.