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In some cash-strapped Mississippi school districts, families only have to drive one county over to see what a well-resourced school district looks like.
Take Claiborne County, which has a student poverty rate of around 55 percent. Although the county is home to a large nuclear power plant, it’s not able to locally tax the business — which has a special exemption. Just over the district border, Hinds County School District has a healthy local tax base; just 14 percent of its students live in poverty.
The 41-point gap between the percentage of students living in poverty in Claiborne and Hinds County isn’t just one of the largest in the state, it’s the fourth widest in the country, according to an update of a 2016 report from the nonprofit EdBuild released this week that highlights economic segregation.
For the analysis, EdBuild’s team compared student poverty rates in neighboring school districts across the country. Student poverty gaps in the double digits were defined as more segregating while gaps in the single digits were less segregating. EdBuild’s report ranked 50 pairs of districts with the most “segregating” school district borders in the country. Among these 50 districts, the report found an average difference of 33-percentage points between the poverty rates of school-aged children.
When the school finance reform advocacy group published its first edition of “Fault Lines: America’s Most Segregating School District Borders” in 2016, Mississippi didn’t land in the top 50. This time, the borders between three pairs of Mississippi school districts rank in the top 15: Claiborne and Hinds counties, Tunica and DeSoto counties, and Leflore and Carroll counties.
(A partial explanation: The 2016 report didn’t include districts classified by the U.S. Census Bureau as rural, which excluded Claiborne/Hinds counties and Leflore/Carroll counties.)
Overall, EdBuild found nearly 172,000 Mississippi students attend school on either side of a highly segregating school district border.
Attending school in a district with more money can mean individual laptops and state-of-the-art athletic facilities, or at bare minimum, enough textbooks to go around to every student — while students attending school just across the border in a low-income district lack these amenities.
To combat this economic segregation, EdBuild recommends that politicians fund schools in a way “that cuts the tie between school budgets and local property values.” The group highlights states that have widened district lines and redistributed local tax revenue or implemented a state property tax system as models to consider. These ideas aren’t often politically popular, but the alternative is the continued cycle of haves and have-nots that leaves kids in struggling districts behind, explained Rebecca Sibilia, the CEO of EdBuild.
Mississippi lawmakers have shown they’re willing to take some heat for redrawing district lines. In the past decade, the Legislature has created new school districts through the process of consolidation. But for legislators, the endgame of school district mergers is often saving administrative costs, not reducing economic segregation. Most consolidations involve two tax-poor rural school districts, which essentially creates one large “have-not” district.
This differs from the scenario EdBuild envisions, Sibilia said, which would uproot the current school funding structures that the report notes cause “massive gaps in opportunity.”
“If you have bigger borders, but you’re not distributing (revenue) in an aggressive way to get at the funding low-income kids need, then you might as well not do it,” Sibilia said.
This story about economic segregation was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.