74 Interview: Author Tim DeRoche on the Inequity of School Attendance Zones, the Flaws of Open Enrollment and Why the Government Should Drive Down Housing Prices


See previous 74 Interviews: Author Jal Mehta on the value of teaching, journalist Paul Tough on class, race and the pursuit of college, Professor Rucker Johnson on how school integration helped black students and the full archive of 74 interviews.

To butcher the famous quote from 19th century abolitionist Theodore Parker, the arc of public education debates is interminable and bends cyclically in an orbit. Fads come and go, we replace our “soft skills” conversation with a “deeper learning” conversation, which we then trade out for our new focus on social-emotional learning or whole-child approaches.

We draft and revise new standards, then build tests to match … by which point we conclude that we’re long overdue to replace our outdated standards. Children “learn by doing,” we conclude, as John Dewey rolls in his grave.

Most of this discourse floats above schools. The more the chatter changes, the more the situation on the ground stays the same. Plus ça change.

Why? Well, much of this talk is nonthreatening. It masquerades as serious engagement with the core issues driving educational inequity in the United States, but it doesn’t shake their real bedrock. Tim DeRoche’s new book, A Fine Line: How Most American Kids Are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools, breaks out of that orbit and centers one of the sturdiest obstacles to equity: allocating public schools according to neighborhood real estate.

A Fine Line examines why — and how — public schools just blocks apart are so often wildly different from one another. DeRoche anchors historical discussions of the legal basis for school attendance zones with examples from Chicago, Los Angeles and other communities around the country. He shows how these zones were often built in public education’s own version of gerrymandering — designed to set students of different races and/or socioeconomic backgrounds apart from one another.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: Thanks for taking the time! What’s the basic problem you’re exploring? What’s the titular “line” you’re referring to?

DeRoche: I’ve known for a long time that there are inequities in American schools, especially in our cities. But what I didn’t know until I started working on this book is how stark those are, and even within the same neighborhood. So the book is centered around pairs of schools in American cities. In each pair, there’s one school that’s thriving, with very high levels of academic performance. It’s usually [full of students from] a wealthier demographic. And then, a mile away, is a school that is really struggling, often outright failing — with lots of empty seats. You see very different levels of academic performance and very different demographics. And what keeps those two schools separate, in most American cities, are these attendance zone boundaries.

So your fate, your educational fate, if you live in one of these neighborhoods, it turns on whether you live on one side of the street or the other. It affects your outcomes in terms of how likely you are to be able to read proficiently by the end of eighth grade, which obviously impacts whether you’re going to be successful in high school and whether you’re going to be successful beyond high school. So in some ways, your whole life turns on whether you live on one side of that line or the other.

It’s the familiar problem that comes from allocating a public good through a private market, right? It’s an inequitable way to assign public schools, and it fuels this sense that high-quality education is a scarce resource. Let me ask specifically about the scarcity piece, because it does imply a basic construct about school quality: What makes a school good or thriving versus what makes a school bad or struggling?

What sets them apart is the [attendance zone] line, and it drives people to make housing decisions. What sets apart people who are able to make housing decisions to live within the attendance zones of these elite public elementary schools? Wealth. It’s not just income, it’s wealth. Sometimes houses are going for $200,000 or $300,000 more for an equivalent house on one side of the line versus the other. So everyone else is crowded out of that area because the housing prices are driven up, which means that more working-class people and middle-class people are on the outside looking in.

But what actually makes the schools good? Like what, what are the characteristics of these schools that are “elite” or “thriving”?

My book is intentionally agnostic about what makes a school better. But you can imagine that the schools on the “right” side of the line are serving a wealthier demographic that typically comes from a more educated background, probably has a greater percentage of parents who went to college who are probably reading regularly to their kids. On the other side of the line, you’re going to have single parents, you’re going to have a higher percentage of minorities, a high percentage of immigrants.

I don’t want to say that there’s something innate about the school that is better. We can see that the academic performance is better. We can see that the kids’ patterns of behavior are better in the better school. But obviously some of the kids in the struggling school would struggle no matter which school they were in. Some of the kids in the “good” school would thrive no matter what school they were in. The point, though, is that this isn’t a good way to allocate a scarce resource. It doesn’t make sense to segregate our communities along the lines of wealth.

What a cognitive gap in our daily existence, right? That residential school assignment system propagates profound injustices … except it’s also really deeply ingrained in American family life. Almost nobody raises an eyebrow. It hardly registers as troubling. Why? Why is it obviously dumb to require families to attend only their neighborhood hospital, or clearly crazy to restrict their safety exclusively to their neighborhood fire station … but neighborhood schools are totally intuitive? 

I think it’s a matter of historical accident. Imagine if a presidential candidate came out and said, “Hey, I want to nationalize health care. We’re going to set up a clinic in each neighborhood and you are going to be assigned to that local clinic.” Sure, you might have the potential to apply to a different clinic, but let’s be honest, the clinics in the nicer areas of town are all going to be full. And yes, they’re going to have better doctors. The facilities are typically going to be nicer.

No one in America would support that plan. It’s a preposterous way to allocate a scarce resource.

Now think about education, a scarce resource that is so important to families’ well-being, to our democracy, to people’s social mobility, to whether people are able to be productive citizens as adults. And so it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but we’ve been doing it this way for so long.

You talk to parents in this country, you talk to any family, we all know people whose lives have been twisted in knots by these policies. And it’s not just poor families who live on the wrong side of the line. I know middle-class families who’ve had to sell the house where they raised their kids because the high school they were zoned for wasn’t a good fit. So they had to sell a house that they had this huge emotional attachment to because of these policies. I know a wealthy mom in Malibu who paid to “borrow” her neighbor’s gas bill in order to get her daughter into Santa Monica High School, which she thought was the right fit for her daughter. There’s certainly a social justice angle to this, but I think we all know that these policies impact people up and down the socioeconomic spectrum.

Part of what’s going on here is that we have built a good chunk of our long-term intergenerational economic framework into housing assets. In the United States, given that you have to fund a lot of your own retirement, compared to most other developed countries, lots of people need their housing costs to keep going up across their lifetimes. They need to make a profit — a big one — on their housing purchases. So they’re glad to have some guaranteed benefits linked to these homes — like access to a particular school.

I think that’s true, but I’m going to raise you a bit. I think there’s loss aversion going on. I’m a homeowner. On one level, I do not want my house price to go down. But in the long run, all of us would prefer to live in a world in which housing is more affordable rather than less affordable. If only for our kids.

But I do think that the government, especially since 2008, has engaged in a bunch of policies, outside of the education realm, that are meant to prop up home prices, which is I think the exact opposite of what the government should be pursuing. We want to drive down the cost of homes. That’s a somewhat separate issue, but it’s wrapped up in this. The economic term for this is “capitalization”: We’ve capitalized the price of a quality education, a quality public education. We’ve capitalized it into home prices. So it’s not even, it’s not even that you need a high income now. At least with private schools, all you need is income. But what we’ve done is we’ve capitalized it into home prices so your access is dependent on your wealth, and wealth to an even greater degree is correlated with race in this country. It’s the absolute worst way you would want to do it.

In the book, you point out that this intergenerational wealth transfer issue is linked to a host of 80-, 90-, even 100-year-old policies.

Right. If you look back at the history, there was a big movement towards neighborhood zoning in the ’50s and ’60s after Brown v. Board of Education, because previously, the way that you were assigned to schools was based on your race. So school districts could no longer segregate based on race. And they needed a way to assign kids to schools. They needed a way to protect the interests of politically powerful families and keep those families in the best schools. It was very easy to use your zip code as a proxy for how politically powerful you are and give elite families privileged access to the best schools.

So it starts with rules that limit the sale of homes in a neighborhood to people of a particular race, and then, once that goes away, the legacy of housing segregation and the intergenerational wealth implications can reset the segregation.

It’s true. When we looked at these pairs of schools, we found that often the shape of the attendance zone of the elite school replicates the shape of the “desirable” area as indicated on the redlining maps from the ’30s. And that zone still excludes the areas of the local neighborhood that have high concentrations of minorities and immigrants.

The system is doing what we designed it to do. And the privileged are taking advantage. In the book, you write, “Every parent should be making an active choice about where their children will be educated.” That’s clearly true. But it struck me that it’s also the problem. Folks with money and social capital have been overactive in shaping enrollment systems … and in gaming those enrollment systems. Maybe the problem isn’t necessarily that all parents need to be more active. It’s that the system privileges some people — who tend to be really savvy about wielding their advantages to compound more.

There are savvy parents who game these systems at all income levels. There are people who lie about their address at all income levels. When people overpay for a house in one of these zones, basically what they’re paying for is privileged access to that school. They’re paying for a guarantee that they’re going to get into that school, which means that they’re paying for the right to keep other families out.

I think of these folks as kind of like taxi drivers in New York who paid for a medallion that gave them a right to drive a taxi in New York. And they paid quite a bit because the government kind of protected them from other competition. Now that ridesharing has come up, these people who paid millions of dollars for taxi medallions are complaining. But the courts have said, “No, you can’t pay the government to protect you from competition forever.” I think the same is true here: These families can’t pay this premium and be protected forever by keeping other families out of a school that is coveted by many people in the same community.

Lots of folks (including me) put a lot of stock in open enrollment policies. These aim to limit neighborhood schools’ ability to exclude families who live outside their attendance zones. A number of states ran with this idea, including in California, but it didn’t always work as planned. Why not?

In California, they passed a well-intentioned open enrollment law, but it contains a clause that basically says that any child in a district can attend any school within the district, so long as he or she wouldn’t displace a child that was zoned to that school in the first place. In fact, that’s the only place in all of the California statutes that I can find where California basically requires the creation and enforcement of attendance zones. These elite public schools, you know, they are coveted public schools. Everyone wants to go there. They are full to the brim. So for these elite schools, open enrollment means nothing.

If you look at Los Angeles, in 2019 they had a handful of open seats at schools with greater than 80 percent reading proficiency. This is a school system that serves hundreds of thousands of kids, and there’s like two or four seats available in elementary schools that are performing at or above expectations. So the open enrollment really means very little if you keep that exception in there.

There is something interesting going on in urban demographics now. There’s been this inversion: Suburban real estate is less hot than it used to be. And many cities’ housing markets are scorching. Is that affecting things at all?

It is fascinating to see. In some cases that’s driving changes in the school demographics. It’s driving changes in how parents think about these policies. Privileged folks who value education extremely highly are often buying homes very close to high-performing public schools and then realizing once they get there, “Oh wait, there’s a line and I’m not allowed to cross that line?!?” I think it is leading to a change in the politics around the issue in the inner city. And I think you may see more and more cities start to consider abolishing attendance zones or at least providing much more choice for folks who don’t live in those coveted zones.

There’s a sort of opening for a cross-class coalition on this, maybe? 

I think there is a good injection of new blood there. There can be coalitions built across races, across different socioeconomic groups, where we say, “Hey, this is not the right way to allocate a scarce resource.”

One of the other dynamics: it’s not just that new middle- and upper-middle-class families come in and freak out. They also displace low-income residents. Gentrification really flexes the “fine line”’s muscle. When struggling and failing schools see demographic shifts towards privilege, the resources suddenly start to flow — money and social capital alike. Then the rising cost of housing pushes low-income families out of the attendance zone. It’s not just a static question — excluding people from better schools because they live on the wrong side of the line. It’s a fluid dynamic that forces historically underserved families over lines over time.

The best example of that in my book is Penn Alexander in Philadelphia. They founded a school, a new public school with an attendance zone, in a predominantly African-American, working-class neighborhood. And the school very quickly developed a very, very good reputation. And what you saw was a shift of the demographics where middle-class and mainly white families started moving in and crowding into the zone. Soon the school couldn’t even serve everyone in the zone anymore. A lot of the housing started to flip, and they started to evict long-term tenants, rent started going up, housing prices started going up. The demographics of that neighborhood switched because of the school. It ended up that a school that was built to provide a high-quality education to working-class folks no longer really serves working-class folks. The zone isn’t what caused the school to be become so coveted, but without the zone, all of these families wouldn’t have flooded into these artificial boundary lines, disrupting the social fabric of that community.

In our world right now, these zones are enhancing segregation. Not just racial segregation, but socioeconomic segregation. They’re guaranteeing that we only live in neighborhoods with people like us. That’s a trend you see across American society in a lot of different ways. But it’s not good for our society; it’s not good for us to be separated from each other like this.

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