A new national study reveals Alabama is among the most educationally segregated states in America, with many of its schoolchildren enrolled in high-poverty school districts, bordered by much more affluent neighbors.
Birmingham has more than twice as many neighbors as the average school district, and of the 13 borders it shares with adjoining districts, six are included among the 50 most segregating in the country — more than any other district in America. The worst of these borders separate Birmingham from Vestavia Hills and Mountain Brook.
Vestavia Hills and Mountain Brook, like most of Birmingham’s well-off neighbors, were formerly a part of the Jefferson County School District — the county school district near Birmingham — but Alabama law permits municipalities with 5,000 or more residents to form their own school districts, independent from larger county districts, and thus these cities seceded to form their own independent districts. These secessions established wealthy enclave districts that present a stark contrast to the rest of Birmingham.
While the suburban neighbors have grown more populous and have prospered in recent decades, enrollment in Birmingham’s schools has plummeted, and its poverty rates have risen as better-off families have fled the district.
In the 1999-2000 school year, Birmingham enrolled 38,120 students and had a 27 percent child poverty rate. Today it enrolls 24,858 students and has a 49 percent child poverty rate — seven times higher than Vestavia Hills and Mountain Brook, which both have poverty rates of just over six percent.
“What we did is built an algorithm that identified all 33,500 school district borders in the country … and compared their school-aged child poverty rates,” said Rebecca Sibilia, the founder and CEO of EdBuild.
Sibilia’s team compiled a list of the 50 most segregating school boundaries in the nation — the district borders with the largest difference in child poverty rates from one side to the other. In their report, “segregating” refers to social economic class rather than race, but the two often coincide in urban school districts.
The study said 26 million children across the country live in high-poverty districts.
“There is no doubt that low-income students are harmed by a system of borders that effectively quarantine them into underserved districts,” the study said. “America has permitted our schools to become a system anathema to our ideals, funding education in a manner that prevents a vast number of students from accessing an equal start in life.”
It’s worth noting, Alabama is the only Southern state on the list, which Sibilia explains is because in much of the South, county borders do double-duty as school district borders, “and so there is less opportunity for intentional segregation.”
Nevertheless, Birmingham is a prime example where students district border segregation results in greater educational opportunities for those who manage to live on the “right” side of these borders. The study revealed the borders separating these districts are effectively impenetrable to the neediest children from families with limited means, compounding the inequalities public education should be conquering. In effect, school district boundaries have become the new status quo for separate but unequal.
Here’s a look at the top 10 most segregating school district boundaries — these neighboring school districts have some of the largest poverty differences in the country.