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Lesson 5.1

Where Do You Live?:
Zip Codes and School Quality

For students, a zip code can be “five digits of separation.”

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Most kids attend the school closest to where they live. It's often the only choice.

This chapter of Ed100 focuses on the where of learning. Other chapters focus on matters of who, why, when, what, or how. The 13 lessons in this chapter explore the physical and metaphorical places where learning happens, or is meant to.

What is a local school?

As we've already pointed out, the history of public schools in America is tangled up in the history of America. The US Constitution doesn't mention education at all, so responsibility lies with each state. California, like most states, delegates most of its responsibility to a geographically-defined quilt of school districts, from tiny and rural to huge and urban. Los Angeles Unified School District, America’s second-largest, serves close to half a million students.

Wherever you live in California, your address belongs to the geographical domain of one public school district. In that district, your kids have the right to attend school at no cost. If the district operates more than one public school serving your grade level, which school is yours? Districts have the power to answer that question, and do so in different ways, which we will explore. You might also have the option to enroll in a public charter school, if they operate in your district and have open seats. A school transfer might be possible, too. But it all starts with your address.

Why? Here's the simplified version…

Historically, local taxes funded local schools

Until the 1970s, local public schools in California were funded by local property taxes. School boards were very powerful at that time — notably, they set property tax rates, which varied from one district to another. Where you lived determined which school district could tax you, and at what rate. It was a massively inequitable system. Rich communities with high property values could raise funds for their schools easily, even if they set tax rates low. Poor communities, by contrast, were out of luck. They couldn't raise enough money to run good schools no matter how high they set their rates.

Today, districts are funded through a formula

It was an unfair system. As Ed100 Chapter 8 will explain, California's courts spurred voters to overhaul it in the 1970s, especially with the passage of Proposition 13 and Proposition 98. These initiatives amended the state constitution, severing the connection between local property tax revenue and school funding.

Yes, there are exceptions.
Bits of the old system remain. As of 2021-22 there were 118 basic aid districts that collect enough property taxes to fund their schools without significant state revenue support. They serve perhaps 3% of students in the state. The most famous example has been Beverley Hills Unified. EdSource published a list of them in 2015. If you see an updated list or know how to create one from public data, please leave a comment!

Virtually all school districts in California now depend primarily on state income taxes, not local property taxes, to fund their schools. The budget of each school district is calculated on the basis of a consistent statewide formula that involves the number of students attending and their needs. Property wealth plays no role in it. Ed100 chapter 8 gets into more detail about the formula (LCFF), and about the school finance system. But for this lesson, it's enough to understand that school districts are mostly funded on the basis of attendance.

To get the funding they need, districts and charter schools count noses. They need students to show up. In principle, they shouldn't have a serious financial reason to care about where students live, but old habits die hard. Establishing proof of residence is standard operating procedure for schools, even if they have open seats. If you want to cross a line to attend a school outside of a district's territory, it can be complicated. We'll take that up in Lesson 5.2.

What were red lines?

In the Ed100 blog
Old laws still segregate our schools

School district boundaries and the attendance areas within them reflect some ugly history. Not so long ago, racist laws in California determined where people could rent or buy a home and where kids could go to school. Policies known as red lines left scars you can still see in school district maps and school catchment areas.

Parents, students, and real estate brokers tend to care a lot about school maps — they determine which children are allowed to go to where. If you live on this this side of the tracks, you go to this school. If you live on the other side, you go to that one.

Gloria Romero, a former California State Senator, calls zip codes "five digits of separation" Some parents will go to great lengths to get their kids into the “right” school. To get away from the “wrong” school or into the “right” one, some parents will lie about their address, even at the risk of being sent to jail for it.

How are students assigned to schools?

The rules for school enrollment, assignments and transfers within each school district are determined by that district. Some districts assign students to schools with a map alone. Some use a lottery. Some provide preferences for siblings to attend the same school. The rules vary a lot and they are entirely local.

These systems matter to families. If they don't like their school and they have the money, some families will spend huge sums to move to a different home. Families time their moves to minimize disruption, even if it costs more. In wealthy areas, real estate agents are experts about local schools and school assignment policies.

Race and school assignment

The role of race in school assignment has long been a matter of critical national concern. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that to separate children in school “from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may effect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” The court held, therefore, that “separate” education was “inherently unequal.”

Overall, America is a diverse country with people from all kinds of backgrounds. But the diversity looks more impressive from a distance than it does up close. Many schools are not diverse at all.

In honor of the 65th anniversary of the Brown decision, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA published an impressive report, Harming our Common Future. Among all of America’s states, the report found, “California is the most segregated for Latinos, where 58% attend intensely segregated schools, and the typical Latino student is in a school with only 15% white classmates.”

Visualizing segregation and its effects

The Urban Institute has invested considerable creativity in the work of making segregation visible through data and maps. Search their work to see patterns in your area.

In a series of huge economic studies, Opportunity Insights and the US Census Bureau partnered to create the Opportunity Atlas, a free, interactive mapping tool that "estimates children’s chances of climbing the income ladder for 70,000 neighborhoods across America." The tool helps reveal the role that school districts continue to play in blocking social mobility in America.

Schools are central to patterns of social connectedness or isolation. Work by Raj Chetty and others using Facebook data establishes that these patterns have lasting consequences including economic and civic outcomes. By these measures, those in California's central valley are particularly isolated.

Education in rural schools

Educational results in California's rural districts severely lag results in more urban districts, a topic investigated by EdSource in 2018. Follow the link for an interactive map comparing the rates at which high school graduates attended colleges in the CSU and UC systems.

Buses and school integration

The Brown decision compelled many school districts to integrate the schools within their boundaries. It was a difficult and disruptive order, because many families live in segregated communities. In some large districts such as Los Angeles, for a time desegregation orders required children to ride buses to schools outside their own neighborhood.

It's important to know that from an education point of view, desegregation worked. Overall, more students did better in school. But forced busing was widely unpopular from the start. Voters amended the state constitution in 1979 to end it.

Over time, additional court decisions (especially Milliken v. Bradley) ended court-ordered busing in America more broadly.

The end of busing did not signal the end of racial isolation, which by some measures has grown worse according to Harming California's Future, a 2021 report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. For a summary of recent Federal civil rights rulings related to education see the UCLA Civil Rights Project documentation of McFarland v. Jefferson County Public Schools & Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 ( PICS)

Not every student attends the school nearest home. Not all students have a choice of schools, but some do. Does choice tend to make segregation better or worse? Read on to lesson 5.2 to find out... but first take a moment to pass the quiz below and earn your ticket.

This page was updated March 2024


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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jeff Camp February 26, 2020 at 1:10 pm
In TIME magazine, Feb 20, 2020: School District Borders Can Worsen Inequality. The example in the story is from Michigan, but attendance boundaries exist in California, too. Invisible lines separate kids from opportunity all over America.
user avatar
Sonya Hendren August 12, 2018 at 10:52 pm
It's not just nannies! In California, anyone can apply to transfer to a school district where the parent or guardian works at least 10 hours per school week. See here:
Of course, this is not as solid as residency, because the districts might not approve the transfer.
The new (2015) nanny/care-giver rule gives residency (so no need to apply for a transfer) to students who live with their parent, at their parent's place of work within the school district, at least 3 days of the school week. ["Parent" meaning parent or guardian]
user avatar
Jeff Camp July 30, 2018 at 11:07 am
Are schools becoming more segregated or less segregated? It depends on how you count segregation, apparently. According to a summary by the Education Writers Association the big picture is that "segregation is going down somewhat within district boundaries, but going up across school boundaries." It seems to me that the most important word in that conclusion is "somewhat." Schools in America remain very segregated.
user avatar
Jeff Camp June 6, 2018 at 5:02 pm
For a deep dive on the appallingly recent legal history of segregation in America, read The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein.
user avatar
Jeff Camp May 8, 2018 at 11:44 am
Enforcement of school district boundaries sometimes turns into a nasty business. WHYY reports on the work of a private detective working border patrol: How school districts prove residency fraud (No, not the national border, the school attendance zone border.)
user avatar
Evan Molin February 22, 2018 at 5:18 pm
The question of where a student attends school is indeed a great one, but also a controversial one. From a student's perspective, I think it makes the most sense that you go to school according to where you live. From an adult point of view, I think they should be able to choose the school their child goes to, if it's in the same district and there is open desks, because it could create much more ease for the parent. However, a child should not be kicked out for the school being full if they were to live within the already-created boundaries for that school. Both sides make sense, but I believe the parent should be able to choose where their child attends school.
user avatar
NATHANIEL CAUTHORN February 22, 2018 at 8:33 am
The high school that I go to was built for two cities, the one I lived in and a much richer city. The school was suppose to be for students of both cities, but after only four years the boundaries were moved so that no one from my city could attended the new high school! I was luckily grandfathered in but many of my friends were not!
#whereisthejustice #youknowwhattodo
user avatar
Arianna Stamness February 22, 2018 at 8:28 am
I think that if parents want their kids to go to school by their employment it should be easier for them to sign the kids up there. There should be less rules if the parents want to have their kid go to a better school out of their district
user avatar
AlessandroMiguel Amores February 22, 2018 at 8:27 am
There should be a way to make it much easier for students and their parents to be able to choose the school for which they want to attend.
user avatar
Jordan Rohr February 22, 2018 at 8:26 am
It’s unfair to every kid that they have to go to a school chosen based on where they live. If you’re poor and live in a poor community you have to go to a school that won’t be the best.
user avatar
Grace Thomas February 22, 2018 at 8:26 am
It seems to me that what is happening in the areas described occurs in other states too, just on different levels. Certain areas of one town will feed into a school with better academics and the other area of the same town with feed into a school with less adequate academic programs. This leads to student trying to open enroll or manipulating their home addresses just so they can go to the better school. As a student, I relate to the individuals who were trying to get into the better school because many of us (students) want to get the best education possible in order to better our future.
user avatar
Ethan StLouis February 22, 2018 at 8:26 am
I feel like this article gave me more information on the topic of the quality of school and learning that kids receive. I agree with most of the points brought up in the article.
user avatar
Alyssa Stettner February 22, 2018 at 8:26 am
Why do some children go to school towns away from their own home?
user avatar
Emma Mechelke February 22, 2018 at 8:24 am
Another very interesting analysis of poverty and school districts. I live in a pretty wealthy suburban community and I visibly see the socioeconomic divide between my town and the lower income towns. The fact that the divide is so visible should spark conversation. I believe kids in poorer communities should have more freedom to choose where they want to go to school. If they have no option, them how will they ever get out of the situation they are in?
user avatar
February 22, 2018 at 8:23 am
I never realized how just being were you lived and zip code related to your poverty and challenges even if you were going to the same school with the same opportunities there still would be trouble. Schools being orgyinto attendance areas is a little concerning considering that schools are not diverted in that way.
user avatar
VICTOR NGUYEN February 22, 2018 at 8:22 am
“The role of race in school assignment has long been a matter of critical national concern.” Agreed
user avatar
Brooklyn February 22, 2018 at 8:19 am
Some students don't have access to high scoring schools because there isn't one near them or they cant get a ride to the school
user avatar
Connor Pargman February 22, 2018 at 8:17 am
I have never heard of the Open Enrollment Act. It is very interesting though, I wonder if there is foul play that comes with it. This could be schools lying about their open spots saying there isn’t any so they don’t have to accept those students.
user avatar
Hannah Symalla February 22, 2018 at 8:15 am
It's important to let kids go to school where they want. If a poor child wants to attend a richer school, they should be able to go and the school should be supportive of their decision. Education is important and if a child desires to have a better education, they should receive a better education so they can be successful in life, which will help them get out of poverty.
user avatar
Abigail Hennessy February 22, 2018 at 8:09 am
Using strictly where you live to determine where your child goes to school may cause other issues in the future. Minnesota offers open enrollment, but that no longer applies in the city I live in. Woodbury is mostly new development and is still growing. Our schools are at capacity and we are faced with the issue that more families will continue to move into the new homes being built, but are schools are the same size.
user avatar
kevin October 8, 2017 at 4:51 pm
Moving to Southern California from out of country we were amazed at how hard it was to register our daughter at the school of our choice. We were denied any school visits in any of the schools in our area until she was registered with her "homeschool" We were told if we registered where my company had provided coporate housing and then moved she would have to change schools! We were then displaced when we finally had found where we wanted to live and she ended up having to change schools the next year when the "neighbourhood " new school was opened.
user avatar
Caryn-C October 10, 2017 at 8:41 am
We had a similar experience moving from Minnesota to California. A significant factor in our home purchase was its proximity to the elementary school--a five minute walk with a crossing-guard at the crosswalk. Imagine our frustration when we went to enroll our eldest son during the summer and were told the school was "impacted" and that we would likely not be attending our neighborhood school. The school was under enrollment so they bused kids in from another town, displacing local children. We quickly went up the chain and eventually were able to enroll. But a significant stress and unnecessary emotional kick in the pants added to an already difficult move across the country.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder July 29, 2016 at 9:37 pm
Many students in the East Bay Area attend schools where they do not reside, and Berkeley High School has tried to crack down on them. This article describes how it works:
©2003-2024 Jeff Camp
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