The O’Neill School capstone report on redrawing school catchment zones for economic and racial equity
In January 2020, a faculty member from the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs approached the Indiana Coalition for Public Education–Monroe County to see if we might be interested in being a “client” for a capstone course for master’s degree students. We were thrilled to participate and proposed three questions as possible areas for the students’ research. The O’Neill capstone team, led by Dr. Ashlyn Nelson, selected our most local and concrete question, which dealt with Monroe County Community School Corporation (MCCSC) school attendance zone boundaries and their impact on segregation of students by race and income. The capstone team launched an examination of the MCCSC school catchment zones with two questions. (1) Are there significant differences across schools in the distribution of students by race or income? (2) If so, would it be practical and plausible for the school district to redraw these zones with the goal of achieving a more equitable demographic balance of students within our schools? They concluded their work in July and presented a report over Zoom to our board Sunday, July 26, 2020.
How does the question of redrawing school catchment zones overlap with the ICPE–Monroe County mission?
Our group’s vision is for all children to have high-quality, equitable, well-funded schools that are subject to democratic oversight by their communities. At their best, public schools bring students from myriad backgrounds together and provide environments where children get to know, respect, and learn along with others of diverse races, family incomes, religions, and worldviews. We believe that integration by income and race can help realize the full potential of our public schools.
Schools’ standardized test scores mirror free and reduced lunch rates (a proxy for family income); this holds true across all school types, whether public, charter, or private voucher school. In Indiana, schools that serve low-income populations are routinely penalized for low test scores by the A-F system. Mixing student populations more by income has the potential to protect our schools and neighborhoods from the state’s punitive school grading system.
The drawing of school attendance zones can only be undertaken by the school system itself, led by the superintendent and our elected school board (in consultation with experts/experienced consultants and the MCCSC community). The capstone report makes recommendations to ICPE–Monroe County, but we ask that when you read it you consider these as recommendations to the Monroe County Community School Corporation.
Summary of the O'Neill capstone report
The O’Neill capstone report begins with a summary of research supporting integration of schools by income and race (page 6 of the report):
The capstone project sought not only to evaluate the current school boundaries’ impact on equity but also to determine if alternative boundaries could be drawn to provide more equitable representation in each school. The team made extensive use of geographic information system (GIS) and census data.
An examination of enrollments in MCCSC schools indicates high and middle schools are reasonably well balanced in terms of race and poverty. However, there is considerable disparity across the 13 elementary schools. The team found the percentage of black and Hispanic students ranged from 25% to 0% and the percentage of free or reduced lunch ranged from 84% to 9%. Importantly, it was not just one extreme school creating this wide range; rather, the schools are spread out along a continuum. The following charts are from page 8 of the capstone report.
With this disparity established, the team looked to explore alternative school boundary lines. They interviewed almost 20 citizens of Monroe County, including school board members, business leaders, representatives of organizations serving those in poverty, and individuals involved in the 2005 redrawing of the MCCSC boundaries. Some key groups of stakeholders were not among those interviewed: Due to delays in obtaining evidence of exempt status from Indiana University’s Institutional Review Board, the capstone team was not able to interview MCCSC administrators or teachers, and they were not able to make contact with students (because of FERPA) or PTO members. Overall, interviewees identified challenges the district would face in redrawing boundaries, but indicated the benefits would justify the effort. The team also looked to strategies used in other parts of the country to achieve equity.
Using input from the interviewees and examples from the literature, the team used GIS and census data to examine alternative approaches to redrawing boundaries with an eye to bringing poverty rates and Black and Hispanic rates closer to the district average across schools. They proposed new boundary maps and compared the poverty rates and Black and Hispanic student rates with those in the current maps.
Because of limitations in the data available to the capstone team, the team’s proposed new maps do not reflect accurately the poverty rates at the different schools, and therefore should not be perceived as a starting point for actual boundary proposals, but rather as indicative of a strategy for redrawing boundaries. The capstone team emphasized that MCCSC, should it embark on redistricting, would have access to all the relevant street-by-street student data.
The model the capstone team recommends as most effective in producing equity is one in which some school boundaries are not contiguous. Allowing noncontiguity was a powerful tool that significantly increased the ability to achieve more economic and racial balance because the students receiving free and reduced lunch tend to live in concentrated locales. The team also examined transportation time, an issue identified by several interviewees, and found that the boundaries they proposed did not increase transportation times significantly for most students.
Other political factors: How school choice changes the equation
In Indiana, privatization efforts that were marketed to voters as “school choice” have defunded public schools and made it harder for them to undertake difficult tasks such as redrawing school attendance zones. State vouchers for private school tuition were introduced in 2011, and have been steadily expanded by the Indiana legislature ever since. Charter schools were also expanded in 2011 and garner increasing amounts of state funding. Legislation also allowed students to leave their own public school district for another (so-called “public-to-public transfer”). The choice environment casts families as consumers. They can turn away from the public school system to charter or voucher schools, or leave their own school district for another, and state tuition funds will follow them. The job of school boards is therefore more complicated than before. We now have two brick-and-mortar charter schools in Monroe County, as well as a number of online charter options, and seven local private schools accepting vouchers. School board members have to weigh the likely gains for students of school populations that are more equitably balanced by race and income with the potential fiscal impact (whose brunt would also be felt by students) of a redistricting process that could, at least in the short term, make some families unhappy and lead them to flee the public school system.
We share the O’Neill capstone report in the spirit of contributing to ongoing discussions regarding diversity and equity in MCCSC schools. We hope the thoughtful and methodical work by this team of talented master’s degree students can help spark a larger conversation about how we as a community can best address racial and economic disparities in our community schools’ populations. We believe the data they have gathered and analyzed to be powerful, and that they have made a strong case for the benefits and plausibility of redistricting school attendance boundaries with the goal of reducing those disparities across schools. At the same time, we recognize the challenge of a process such as redistricting amid the likelihood of funding shortfalls related to the pandemic and a state legislature that continues to find more ways to funnel taxpayer money out of the public school system and into private hands and privately managed schools. Any process undertaken by the school district would need to establish common ground and clear goals, and engage the full community so as to be understood broadly to be worthwhile and fair.
NB: Please note that the report is the work of master’s students in the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. We are grateful to them for their intense and valuable work. Any practical maps will need to be based on fuller, more specific data than what was available to the capstone team.
P.S. Why did we wait until 2021 to share a report which was given to us in July 2020?
As coronavirus cases mounted in July, the question of whether our schools should open in person during the pandemic was being contested and negotiated throughout the nation. Our community was no exception. Our school board members were besieged by heated demands from all sides. Our district was working around the clock to figure out the safest and most effective way to deliver both in-person and online instruction, and our group called on the state to issue science-based metrics and guidance for school districts. Once school started in early August (all online for about a month), parents were frantically trying to figure out how to use the technology to ensure that their kids were able to access their online classrooms.
With MCCSC’s superintendent search put on hold by the pandemic, our long-serving superintendent had postponed her retirement in order to see our district through until they could complete the search. Additionally, a school board election was underway, and our group held two school board forums. We are all volunteers working with finite amounts of time. We wanted to present the report with adequate context in a more stable environment, both of pandemic understanding and of district leadership.
Indiana Coalition for Public Education–Monroe County (ICPE–Monroe County) advocates for all children to have high quality, equitable, well-funded schools that are subject to democratic oversight by their communities.
We are a nonpartisan and nonprofit group of parents, grandparents, caregivers, teachers, and other community members of Monroe County and surrounding areas.