Crossing the Lines The case for redistricting

Two of M-A’s feeder schools, Belle Haven and Hillview, are less than four miles apart, yet they are separated by a freeway and the invisible, jagged lines of school district boundaries. Where one has struggled to provide a library, arts and music programs, and even long-term teachers, the other has a complete multimedia library, robust special programs, and teachers who stay for their entire careers.

The impact your education has on your opportunities in life is obvious and well-researched. Your neighborhood has dictated too much for too long.

We propose that the middle and elementary school districts in our area rezone, so as to share resources and decrease racial and economic segregation. By combining or rezoning Menlo Park City School District (MPCSD), Ravenswood City School District (RaCSD), Las Lomitas Elementary School District (LLESD), and Redwood City School District (ReCSD), we would help eliminate the striking achievement and opportunity gaps observed at M-A.

Backlash against rezoning or combining districts is the most convincing argument in favor of doing so. If some parents are reluctant to send their child to one district out of fear of a lower quality education, then we should wonder why that education is fit for students from less affluent neighborhoods.

The economic disparity between districts is stark. While each district is funded by a combination of federal, state, and local sources, discrepancies arise primarily from property taxes and donations to districts’ education foundations.

A comparison of the 2017-18 school year revenue per pupil amounts.

Although the revenue per enrolled student amounts for RaCSD and MPCSD are not drastically different, districts that rely more heavily on state or federal funding may be more restricted in how they use their money.

“Basic aid” districts like MPCSD and LLESD do not rely primarily on state funding — for MPCSD, 86% of their total revenues come from “local property tax, parcel taxes, and community donations.” However, districts like ReCSD and RaCSD rely substantially on state aid, which puts great emphasis on average daily attendance in its calculation, meaning they lose money when students are frequently absent.

While treating students differently based on race is illegal, variation between district funding isn’t. This knowledge determines where more wealthy — usually white or Asian American — families move.

A district with a positive reputation, in turn, drives up demand for housing in that area, which then drives costs up, pushing more low-income families out, making the disparity larger.

When caught in a cycle of exclusion and recruitment based on financial well-being, privileged areas become exponentially more inaccessible. Decades of wealthy west Menlo Park’s failure to alleviate this has sustained educational inequalities.

By combining districts, revenues also combine. With increased monetary flow, the current elementary school districts could — and likely would — even out in terms of resources over time.

Teachers at Menlo Park and Las Lomitas schools also make an average of about $40,000 more per year than those at Ravenswood and Redwood City, an average of $119,690 versus just $77,970. Yet all must compete for rapidly diminishing affordable housing in our expensive area. This drives quality teachers away from low-paying districts.

Budget cuts also impact how many faculty members a district can afford to keep. Fiscal difficulty necessitates reductions like the ones recently adopted in RaCSD, which Palo Alto Online says will “eliminate the equivalent of 83 full-time positions.”

If resources were consolidated, more students might benefit from exceptional teachers who can remain in the area long term. Students would not have to ask, as Ravenswood teacher Avani Patel’s students did, “How come everyone always leaves us? What did we do?”

All students would have access to well-funded STEAM programs and libraries. Perhaps, one school would not implement a 1:1 iPad program in the face of a district four miles away fighting to provide for the 95 percent of students who either qualify for free or reduced-price meals, are English Learners, or are foster youth.

According to Niche.com, a website that rates schools, LLESD and MPCSD get “A’s” based on an analysis of “academics, teachers, diversity, student life, and student outcomes.” ReCSD and RaCSD receive a “C” and “D,” respectively. If districts shared resources, worry over where your house is would diminish.

The current districts, whether intentionally or not, divide our communities by ethnicity and socioeconomic standing.
The four feeder districts of M-A roughly overlayed on the University of Virginia's racial dot map.

The districts are practically drawn around the demographic makeup of the areas. Nationally, education is more segregated today than it was three decades ago, as found by multiple studies.

Our area is no different. RaCSD and ReCSD are both over 70 percent Latino, with white students making up 0.47 percent and 20.05 percent of each, accordingly. LLESD and MPCSD are both majority white, with the next largest group being either Asian-American or Latino, respectively.

Most of these students then combine as freshmen at M-A, never having interacted with students from the other schools beyond a few sports games.

Research shows that low-track classes have negative effects on learning, educational gaps compound over time, and having ineffective teachers for three consecutive years can lower achievement gains by 50 percentile points. While many RaCSD and ReCSD teachers are undoubtedly passionate and skilled, too many classes are taught by long term substitutes.

After attending a school where “[Patel] was the only 8th grade teacher that [her] students had for the entirety of the year,” it comes as no surprise that students from RaCSD and ReCSD have a much harder time achieving in high school and beyond. The schools they have attended, by no fault of their own or their family, are systematically linked to inequality at large.

Where segregated schools fail students, integrated schools succeed. Research has consistently proven that, in addition to the academic benefits for minority students, white students’ academic achievement is either not affected or improves with integration. The socioeconomic mix of a student’s peers is one of the largest indicators of success.

In a Cleveland study, the more often that African American and Latino students were exposed to desegregation before high school, the greater the beneficial effects of attending a desegregated high school became. Desegregation was shown to benefit white students as well.

In an area where housing is stratified socioeconomically, school is one of the only places children meet people with diverse experiences. Indeed, M-A may be the most diverse place any of us ever are.

When students of different backgrounds interact with each other on equal footing, prejudice and stereotyping — which develop early in childhood — are reduced and critical thinking skills increase.

In a research brief from The National Coalition on School Diversity, they conclude that “the timing of the contact is important — elementary school age children are both aware of race and most likely to display flexible thinking around what racial differences may or may not signify.”

The friends we make and the people we see as children dictate much of how we live in the future: segregation repeats itself throughout our lives. Sustained, early contact with people of different experiences makes us more likely to seek integrated employment and housing and actively engage in more civic duties.

For districts whose missions include statements about preparing children for a more global, democratic society, a major component is missing when students are separated by ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

The discussion surrounding RaCSD and ReCSD has focused on “fixing” schools with pressure and sanctions, ignoring the fact that they are part of a system designed for failure. The system is not broken: it works how it was designed.

The lack of resources—and subpar outcomes— for poorer, less white students and communities are never forced upon their richer, whiter neighbors. We are quick to dismiss Brown v. Board as the last of school segregation, yet we tacitly accept the rhetoric of “separate but equal.” Segregation is our area’s norm. The problem does not go away if we stop looking: it gets worse.

If the consolidation of resources would lead to better education for all students, the possibility should be welcomed. We need to face this issue head-on, and we suggest combining district funds as a concrete first step towards educational equity.

Created By
Elliot Schena

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