There was an interesting article in the journal Democracy that I saw on Facebook the other day with a provocative title: “No More School Districts!”

The author, veteran educator writer Kevin Carey, makes the case that school district borders are the key support of segregated schooling and calls for bold change in removing or altering them.

 Our nation has been chopped to pieces by tens of thousands of borders that citizens are forbidden to cross under threat of incarceration. … The walls have been there for so long that people largely just accept them as an unalterable part of the landscape, like cliffs and rivers that can be built around and occasionally bridged at great expense, but never truly changed. …

American schoolchildren deserve more. It’s time for the next generation of activists and policymakers to see K-12 school districts in the same way that they see extraction-based energy production, employer-provided health insurance, and loan-financed college: as a corrupt and irredeemable system that needs to be ripped out, root and branch, and replaced with something better.

In making his case, Carey walks through the history of how school districts came to be the way they are today — essentially, a massive, federally supported wave of consolidations in the mid-20th century that brought education from the one-room schoolhouse to the sort of sophisticated enterprise that requires greater scale and more resources. Today’s “central school districts” were the result of this centralization process.

Carey also describes the double damage of two early 1970s Supreme Court decisions. One, Rodriguez v. San Antonio, ruled that large funding disparities between districts did not necessarily equate to “unequal” education in the Brown v. Board sense. The other, Milliken v. Bradley, ruled that desegregation plans could not transcend district lines. The cumulative effect, he concludes, was, “like the so-called Compromise of 1877, a devastating capitulation to white supremacy.”

There’s an interesting wrinkle in the story in New York. State law requires that city school district boundaries be coterminous — i.e., exactly the same — as the municipal boundary. So while the Penfield school district boundary line crosses in seemingly haphazard fashion into and out of Webster, Brighton and Perinton, among others, RCSD serves solely children in the city of Rochester. This law has been on the books forever — and for at least 80 years, lawmakers have been trying to change it.

I go over this in great length in my book and won’t share it all here, but the upshot is that Rochester was excluded by law from the wave of consolidations that happened around Monroe County from about 1900 to 1960. At the time, RCSD was the unquestioned dominant leader in local education; suburban districts would have leapt at the chance to attach themselves to it. In fact, many thousands of students outside the city of Rochester did pay to attend RCSD schools, chiefly high schools, up until about 1960. As one East Irondequoit parent said in 1954 when it seemed his children might not be able to continue at Franklin High School in the city: ““We realize that a city high school – and this has been proven time and time again – can give our children a far better education than a small town one can. Also, Rochester schools have the highest standards.”

Carey proposes some interesting reforms to the tyranny of the school district boundary. Most notably, he believes they should be redrawn every 10 years, just as electoral boundaries are. That strikes me as a very radical mechanism, though he is correct in noting that district boundaries have, in other times and situations, been much more malleable than they are today. In any case, I recommend reading his piece and thinking more deeply about the role that school district boundaries serve, for good or for ill.

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