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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 of the time, kids attend the school closest to where they live. It's convenient, and frequently it's the only option their family can afford.

Historically, school assignments were rigidly determined by a map in the school district office that defined school attendance areas. Kids went to school where the map said to go, and that was that.

These attendance areas were created for practical reasons — students had to be within walking distance of school. Taxes played a part, too: local property taxes determined local school funding. For homeowners it made sense to connect where you live and pay taxes with where your children went to school.

Today, that reasoning is mostly gone because the school finance system has changed. There is rarely a direct significant connection between local property taxes and the amount of money a school receives. Still, rigid attendance areas continue to be the norm.

How many school districts in California?

California is organized (or separated, or segregated) into about a thousand school districts. These vary from tiny, rural districts that serve only a handful of students to sprawling urban districts. Los Angeles Unified School District, America’s second-largest, serves close to half a million. It is so large that the state PTA treats it as four districts.

In any district with more than one school, parents and students tend to care a lot about attendance areas — they determine which children go to which school. If you live on this side of the tracks, you go to this school. If you live on the other side, you go to that one. You can’t transfer over a district line unless both school districts agree. (Good luck with that.)

Former California State Senator Gloria Romero refers to zip codes as "five digits of separation." Parents will go to great lengths to get their kids into the “right” school. Sometimes, parents desperate to get away from the “wrong” school will lie about their address, even at the risk of being sent to jail for it. Can your child attend school near your place of employment? Maybe, if you're a live-in nanny.

The rules for school assignments are determined by each school district. Some districts make school assignments with a map alone. Some use a lottery. Some use a ranked choice system, or test scores, or complex hybrid solutions. These systems matter a lot to families. Changes in the rules drive changes the housing market. It's so important to families that they will move to a different home. Families time their moves to minimize disruption, even if it costs more. In wealthy areas, real estate agents become experts about school assignment policies.

Homeless? There are rules for that, too.

Race and school attendance

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.”

California is a very diverse state, in aggregate. But the state's ethnic, racial and economic diversity looks more impressive on paper than it does in person. Many communities are not diverse at all. In honor of the 65th anniversary of the Brown decision, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA published 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".

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.

Education in rural schools

Educational results in California's rural districts severely lags 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. This 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. From an education point of view, desegregation worked, but forced busing was widely unpopular from the start.

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

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)

Social science indicators of poverty, well-being, educational attainment and more are notoriously correlated with zip code. Organizing school enrollment strictly by geography is no longer the only option. One of the major school reform themes of recent decades has been the idea that families should have choices about where their children attend school.

Not every student attends the school nearest home. 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.

Updated July 2017
December 2018
September 2019
December 2020
November 2022


Where you go to school matters a lot. Which ONE of the following statements is FALSE?

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
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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:
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