Education

'Island' School Districts: A Story of Haves and Have Nots

School districts completely surrounded by a single larger district often have vast disparities.
by | August 1, 2016

In the middle of the Columbus, Ohio, school district lies another district serving the small city of Bexley. Only a few thousand students attend Bexley schools, and they're more than four times less likely to live in poverty than their peers in Columbus.

Bexley is somewhat unique in that it's one of 180 school districts across the country completely surrounded by a single larger district. Known as "island districts," they're often characterized by stark socioeconomic disparities compared to their larger neighboring district, according to research by EdBuild, an education reform nonprofit group.

Most island districts were established several decades ago, but they're still being formed today. "There's an ongoing movement from wealthier areas to secede from large urban school districts," said Rebecca Sibilia, EdBuild's CEO. "School district lines should not serve the purpose of segregating wealth."

While some island school districts resemble Bexley in that they're more affluent and possess more resources than their larger districts, it's more common for island districts, particularly in the South, to be poorer than their surrounding districts. Sixty-three of the 180 island districts identified by EdBuild report student poverty rates more than 10 percentage points higher than their surrounding districts. Another 18 districts are wealthier, with student poverty rates at least 10 percentage points less than the larger district.

Inequities tend to be most apparent in areas where school revenue is more directly tied to property taxes. "An overreliance on local funding creates the incentive for these districts to be created or sustained," Sibilia said.

Groups like EdBuild advocate for more funding equity across school districts. To help offset funding disparities, some districts participate in different types of revenue sharing agreements. States like New York, for example, apply funding formulas intended to equalize schools’ revenues. Similarly, some counties levy an additional tax on all residents that’s used to fund lower-income schools. But in other cities, like Bexley, residents don't contribute any property or income tax revenues to neighboring districts.

Island school districts, because they tend to be small, are often the subject of merger discussions. Such attempts are rarely successful, however, as residents aren't keen on ceding local control of their schools. Small districts, accordingly, are widespread throughout not just rural America, but urban and suburban areas as well. A Governing analysis of federal data earlier this year found about a third of all local districts operate only one or two public schools and just under half of districts serve fewer than 1,000 students.

Island Districts With the Largest Disparities

Some island districts that EdBuild identified exhibit particularly large discrepancies between their 2014 student poverty rate and that of their surrounding district. The following island districts with at least 1,000 students recorded the largest differences in absolute terms. 'Island' districts are listed first and outlined in red on school district maps.

Highland Park (Texas) Independent School District: 5.7 percent student poverty rate

Dallas Independent School District: 35.6 percent student poverty rate

The Highland Park Independent School District serves an affluent area of Texas, spanning Highland Park, University Park and parts of North Dallas. It’s consistently ranked as one of the state’s top schools, and less than 6 percent of its students live in poverty. The district is surrounded by the much larger Dallas Independent School District, where about 36 percent of students live in poverty, a difference of 30 percentage points.

A Texas law requires wealthier districts to contribute a portion of tax dollars to the state that’s then distributed to other districts. Since 1991, Highland Park school district taxpayers have contributed $1.2 billion in funding, or nearly 7 percent of the total payments recaptured under the law, according to the district.

Bexley (Ohio) City Schools: 9.3 percent student poverty rate

Columbus (Ohio) City Schools: 38.3 percent student poverty rate

Over the past several decades, the city of Columbus annexed more and more neighboring jurisdictions, eventually growing to become Ohio’s largest city. Many of the school districts, however, remain independent.

The small city of Bexley is one of the region’s wealthier enclaves. Its school district spends over $2,000 more per pupil than Columbus, according to EdBuild.

Some suburban school districts in the region maintain boundary lines that extend beyond their municipalities into the city of Columbus. Nine participate in what are called “win-win” agreements requiring them to contribute revenue to Columbus city schools in exchange for preserving their boundaries from annexation.

Freehold Borough (N.J.) School District: 30.7 percent student poverty rate

Freehold Township (N.J.) School District: 4.7 percent student poverty rate

Freehold Borough was established nearly a century ago as a result of a state law permitting town centers to incorporate. In recent decades, the borough of about 12,000 has suffered slow economic decline while the once predominately rural surrounding township has welcomed much more affluent residents. The borough’s student poverty rate in 2014 was 31 percent, while only 5 percent of the surrounding township’s students lived in poverty.

The district has struggled with overcrowding at its schools -- about 1,600 students are enrolled at facilities intended to hold no more than 1,148 -- and voters have rejected two recent revenue-raising ballot measures. Unable to fund construction, the district pays rent to the township district. In all, the island district spends roughly $5,000 less per pupil annually than the township, according to EdBuild.

Lebanon (Pa.) School District: 36.3 percent student poverty rate

Cornwall-Lebanon (Pa.) School District: 10.8 percent poverty rate

The Lebanon School District is another poorer urban island district that’s surrounded by seven wealthier municipalities making up the Cornwall-Lebanon School District. Lebanon schools register a student poverty rate about 25 percentage points higher than the surrounding district, with about the same enrollment. There’s also a stark disparity in state standardized test scores: Cornwall-Lebanon schools rank in the top quarter of all districts statewide, while Lebanon district students consistently score among the lowest in the state.

Lebanon schools have received more help in recent years as Gov. Tom Wolf has pushed to boost education funding. The latest state budget includes a $2.8 million increase in basic and special education funding from two years ago.

Thomasville City (N.C.) Schools: 40.8 percent of students in poverty

Davidson County (N.C.) Schools: 17.1 percent of students in poverty

The Thomasville City School District serves some of the North Carolina’s poorest students. Nearly 41 percent of students in the small community live in poverty, compared to 17 percent in the much larger Davidson County School District. The county district serves more than 20,000 students, while only about 2,500 students are enrolled in Thomasville city schools.

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