Friday, January 31, 2014

Suburbanization & The Schools

Last fall, the Atlanta Braves announced plans to leave their relatively new ballpark to build a new park in suburban Cobb County, Georgia when their lease expires in several years. This move is partially a result of Cobb County’s willingness to foot much of the bill for constructing the new stadium while the city of Atlanta refused to pay for upgrades to the existing stadium and nearby infrastructure.  But one of the reasons that the Braves, who moved to Atlanta in the mid-1960s, publicly cited to justify their move was that their new location is more central to their base of Braves fans—an important economic consideration given their difficulty in selling out their stadium despite very successful teams.

As the Braves make a move that is cognizant of demographic trends, it is worth considering how education could also respond to such population shifts.  As we found in our study of suburban enrollments in the nation’s largest 25 metropolitan areas, the vast percentage of public school students are enrolling in suburban schools, including growing numbers of students of color. One of the most concerning trends is the way in which students of color and low-income students who move to suburbia are being confined to districts in which there is much lower exposure to white and more affluent students.  Atlanta, in fact, reflects these trends: it has very high levels of suburbanization and some of its suburban counties have also undergone rapid racial transformation since the mid-1980s. While increasingly farther out suburban communities still reflect our traditional image of a homogeneous white community with middle to upper-class residents, closer in suburban communities are replicating patterns of stratification that had been seen between the central city and the suburbs. Indeed, demographers find a growing contribution to metropolitan segregation of intra-suburban segregation.

How school district boundaries are drawn matters tremendously as to how suburbanization will impact schools. If districts are larger, such as countywide districts containing both central city and at least parts of the suburban ring, suburbanization is less likely to substantially change the district enrollment and tax base. Metropolitan areas that are more fragmented due to largely municipal school boundary lines typically are much more segregated. In such areas, inner-ring suburban districts are quite vulnerable to population shifts that can result in rapid racial transition and loss of tax base.

Given the variety of changes in the last decades alone—demographic, technological, economic, etc.—it is worth reconsidering whether it might be both more efficient and more effective to organize schooling on a broader geographical scale. If most students live in the suburbs and not the central city, thinking of a metropolitan area school district might more accurately reflect our reality and provide broader exposure to new ideas and people from different backgrounds that could positively influence the educational experiences of our young people as well as better preparing them for their lives as citizens and workers in our interconnected society. In addition, civil rights groups and other organizations that seek to ensure equal opportunity for low-income and/or students of color have traditionally focused their efforts on the central cities but they too should realize that there are important opportunities to try to create more equitable, integrated schooling opportunities for growing shares of students in suburbia.

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