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Which school do you want to support?

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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Image: Row Houses CC Woodley Wonder Works

Where a child attends school usually depends on where he or she lives.

Historically, school assignments were determined by your address: a map in the school district office defined school attendance areas, and kids went to school where the map says they go to school.

These attendance areas were created for practical reasons -- students had to be within walking distance of school. The arrangement also had a financial basis: local property taxes determined school funding, so for homeowners it made sense to connect where you live and pay taxes with where your children went to school.

Today, there is rarely a significant connection between property taxes and the amount of money a school receives, but the pattern of rigid attendance areas continues to be the norm.

California is organized into about a thousand school districts. These vary from tiny, rural districts serving only a handful of students to sprawling urban districts. Los Angeles Unified School District, America’s second-largest, serves about two-thirds of a million students. It is so large that the state's PTA treats it as four districts.

In any district large enough to have more than one school serving a grade level, the question of which children go to which school is automatically a matter of great interest. Parents will go to great lengths to get their kids into the school they believe will best serve them. Those who cannot afford to move sometimes 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. Homeless? There are rules for that, too.

Where do you live?
Your zip code, please!
Five digits give
your destiny

California is a very diverse state, but its ethnic, racial and economic diversity looks more impressive on paper than in person. Many communities are not diverse at all. Schools within a district are frequently organized into “attendance areas” whose boundaries guide school assignment decisions. Former California State Senator Gloria Romero refers to zip codes as "five digits of separation." Assignment may also be determined by lottery, by ranked choice, by test scores, or by complex hybrid solutions defined at the district level.


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.”

Buses and School Integration

The Brown decision led to requirements that many school districts integrate the schools within their boundaries. In some large districts such as Los Angeles, this required busing to bring children to schools outside their own neighborhood. Remnants of this requirement still remain in Los Angeles and many other California districts, in the form of targeted funds that were once used for school transportation (now known as Targeted Instructional Improvement Block Grant, or TIIG).

Over time, additional court decisions and voter initiatives (particularly proposition 209, passed in 1996) ended court-ordered busing and disallowed the use of race as a factor in determining school assignment. The end of busing did not signal the end of racial isolation, which by some measures has grown worse according to Segregating California's Future, a 2014 report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. For a good 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)

California’s Open Enrollment Law

Because poverty and poor school results tend to go together, many of the state's lowest-performing schools are located in its poorest zip codes. The Open Enrollment Act is intended to provide students with a way out: the law requires that students enrolled in the state's 1,000 lowest-scoring schools be permitted to transfer to a higher-scoring one in their district or in another district, if there are open desks.

Social science indicators of poverty, well-being, educational attainment and more are notoriously correlated with zip code. Organizing school enrollment strictly by geography is not 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. The next lesson will explore school choice.

Updated July 2017


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
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 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:
©2003-2017 Jeff Camp
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