If you think about a “segregated school”, what image comes to mind? Quite often, the cultural narrative says that that is a school with almost exclusively students of color. What about a school with 98% White students? Is that a “segregated school”? While we don’t often think of it that way, it is clearly segregated. Tomás Monarrez is an economist by training. As he was studying the question of school and housing segregation at the Urban Institute, he was struck by the ways that the field of economics falls into the same traps that we fall into as a culture – segregation means concentrations of Black, Brown and Indigenous students. This seemed wrong to Tomás, and he and his colleagues set out to define segregation, using the tools of economics. Their definition takes the district average demographics and holds that as the baseline to which other schools should be compared. In this framing, in a district with 70% students of color, a school with 90% students of color is segregating, but so is a school with 50% students of color. What he quickly found was that the schools that often contribute the most to segregation within a district are not the schools we often focus on – are not the schools with 95% students of color, but rather, the schools with 75%, %85, even 90% White students. His hope is that this shift in framing can focus the efforts of local policy makers who care about decreasing segregation.
He joins to talk about his work, why he does it, and what sort of social good he hopes his economics focus can achieve.
- Segregation Contribution Index
- Dividing Lines: How School Districts Draw Attendance Boundaries to Perpetuate School Segregation
- A Vox explainer highlighting the work of Tomàs Monarrez and the Urban Institute on school boundaries
- Home Owners Loan Corporation – 1930s entity that drew redlining maps
- Look up redlining maps for your city
- Michelle Adams on our podcast – traces the history of desegregation law in this country
- The Parents Involved Case
- Harry Belafonte on King saying “I fear we are integrating into a burning house”
- Dr. Elizabeth McRae on our podcast – White Woman and the Politics of White Supremacy
- Dr. McRae’s Mother’s of Massive Resistance
- Richard Rothstein Color of Law
- SFUSD’s new student assignment policy
- Tree Equity
Use these links or start at our Bookshop.org storefront to support local bookstores, and send a portion of the proceeds back to us.
Join our Patreon to support this work, and connect with us and other listeners to discuss these issues even further.
We are a proud member of The Connectd Podcast Network.
The Integrated Schools Podcast was created by Courtney Mykytyn and Andrew Lefkowits.
This episode was produced by Andrew Lefkowits and Val Brown. It was edited, and mixed by Andrew Lefkowits.
Music by Kevin Casey.
Andrew: Welcome to the Integrated Schools Podcast. I'm Andrew, a White dad from Denver.
Val: I’m Val, a Black mom from North Carolina.
Andrew: And this is “Redrawing the Lines: Undoing the History of Segregation.” Val, before we jump into the episode today, I have to ask last time you mentioned that you wanted to be friends with Stefan Lallinger and his family. How is that going? Have you, have you infiltrated the family yet?
Val: I think I'm in. I think I'm in! They do have a newborn, so I'm giving them a little space before we, like, hang out but he did confirm on Twitter that he was accepting my friend contract.
Andrew: I mean, Twitter is a binding contract. So I think you're, I, think you're good. I think my work here is done.
Val: I took a screenshot. And if I am honest, I kind of wanted to be friends with our guests today as well!
Andrew: Yes, Tomás Monarrez is, he's an economist, and I'm sure that I have, like, some twisted, stereotype about economists in my mind. But whatever that is, it is not Tomás.
Val: Agreed! 1000%. He's clearly deeply dedicated to data, but really into using it for social good.
Andrew: Yeah. There's, like, this heart and humanity that comes through in his work, in this field that is, you know, ostensibly kind of neutral and focused on the invisible hand of the market. But he really kind of turns that on its head.
Val: And I love that he has taken that passion and turned it towards this question of school segregation.
Andrew: And what I really love is that this episode gives the impression that this podcast is far better planned than it actually is! So, so last episode, Stefan Lallinger mentioned this chart that he loves to show from Urban Institute and it's Tomás’ work. And here we are, the very next episode with Tomás Monarrez. I wish I could say that that was planned, but.
Val: We could pretend and take all the credit.
Andrew: Yeah. I, it's not really surprising Tomás, his work is showing up in all sorts of places. He's got this, you know, relatively straightforward work. But it, it really, for me, at least really shifted how I think about, what segregation means. And, you know, if we care about decreasing segregation, where our energies should be.
Val: But let's not give too much away. We should listen to this conversation. And, may I say, I think you should add something to your intro, “I'm Andrew, the co-host-est with the most-est.” I just need people to know I enjoy talking to you!
Andrew: Alright. Alright. That's fair. Let's hear the conversation.
Tomás: My name is Tomás Monarrez. I'm a research associate at the Urban Institute’s Education Data and Policy Research Center, and I'm a labor economist by training. Nice to meet you, Andrew.
Andrew: Yeah, thank you so much for being here. Your research mostly focuses on school segregation, or at least has most recently focused on school segregation. Before we get into, kind of, what that research is, how did you come to care about that? What in your background brought you to focus your energies on that?
Tomás: When I was getting my PhD I knew that there was quite a bit of research kind of growing and the area of residential and school segregation among empirical economists. However, I noticed that a lot of the existing literature at the time on the topic, as economics usually is, was very focused on, on market forces?
Which in this case, for the subject of segregation, it's about household sorting, right? And households choosing where to live. There being a price that is associated with every house and then folks, kind of like, demanding homes in one area of town versus the other, and sort of racial segregation just naturally arising because of these differences in preferences, right?
So a lot of the classic work in economics on stratification had to do with that. And, standing there in the classroom, I was a little bit, you know, taken aback by the fact that there was no mention, not no mention, but you know, a disproportionately, like, less talking about institutions. About how the government sets rules that facilitate or impede these types of stratification patterns from happening. Of history. You know, the fact that segregation was legally enforced in many areas of the country during the first half of the 20th century. And it just seemed like a very important piece.
And also from a policy perspective, right? When you tell leaders and state and local governments that segregation is just there “de facto,” right? People use that word a lot. Like, it's just a thing. People will do it by themselves. Then it kind of creates this tension of saying, “Well, what is the role for the government to impede people from doing whatever they want?” Right? Whereas, if you start from a perspective of “Oh, we wouldn't have this level of segregation, had the government not acted in this particular way historically,” I think that really sets up the conversation a little bit differently.
Andrew: Right. The, like, the invisible hand of the market didn't just by itself create our segregated society, but there was actually government interference. And if you start from the view that, like, “Look around. This level of segregation is natural,” then, then there's no incentive to do anything about it. But if you look and say “The only reason we’re this segregated is because the government intervened in the market, the government actually pushed us to be this segregated,” then it creates some kind of, like, political incentive to say, “Maybe we should do something about that.”
Andrew: Why, why did that bother you? I'm guessing that you found yourself, sort of like, swimming upstream in a class full of economists who all were sort of taking this view that market forces have created de facto segregation. What in your background or your history do you think helped you step out of that and kind of say, “Wait a minute, something doesn't feel right here”?
Tomás: Yeah, I think partly maybe my personal experiences. You know, as somebody that isn't necessarily considered White in, in the U.S. and kind of thinking more in terms of this new kind of call for racial equity. Which is kind of flipping the way that we've been thinking about it, right?
That is to say that the government really created the foundations for these inequalities to take place. It's pretty obvious from the fact that we even had that Brown vs Board decision that made segregation unconstitutional, right? That there, the government has been an active player in all of these things.
I think at least in that literature that I was studying during grad school, it just seemed like there was this overrepresentation of individual choice to try to explain these patterns.
To anyone that was kind of looking at these patterns, you know? When you look at that picture of Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park.
And you just see everybody on one side is White, and everybody on the other side is Black. And you really ask yourself, “Oh, is this because of a natural equilibrium of sorting and willingness to pay for housing and amenities?” No. right? That doesn't make a lot of sense. So, that's kind of what brought me to that. It's not new, right? And maybe it's new in economics. We're famous for kind of being late to the party in this discipline?
Tomás: So I was just trying to move the needle within the discipline.
Andrew: What was your schooling experience like growing up?
Tomás: Oh, well, I actually went to schools in El Paso, Texas. So in El Paso, Texas it's a little bit less about racial segregation because it's essentially everybody is of Hispanic background in that city.
There is definitely differences in socioeconomic status. But there is not as much of racial segregation. I only learned about racial segregation when I moved to Austin, Texas for college.
Tomás: Uh. And there, you know, I started learning a little bit more about East Austin verses West Austin. And just the way that, like, most cities in the U.S. that are diverse are sort of divided by these lines that are very correlated with race. People will tell you “Nobody drew the line because of race. It just ended up being like that.” But it just seems like too much of a coincidence a lot of the times, right? So that's kind of what got me thinking about these topics since-
Tomás: I was kind of younger. Yeah.
Andrew: Yeah. So, where I first became aware of your work was your project on the Segregation Contribution Index, and so, I'd love to talk about that a little bit. And I wonder if we start, you can just sort of explain, you know, what it is, and then we can maybe talk about why, you know, that sort of as a, as a way of reframing how we think about segregation, why it's important.
Tomás: Yeah. So, the reason we started working on that project, we noticed when we read education journalism on the topic of school segregation, there was a bit of an ambiguity in the way that folks were talking about segregation, in the sense that a lot of folks talked about a segregated school, Right? And if you read between the lines there, most of the time, essentially all they meant is a school with essentially only Black students or only Hispanic students, right?
But then, that was confusing to us because to our understanding, segregation is not something that is happening to any “one” school or any “one” neighborhood, right? Segregation is something that is happening to a whole city, or to a whole district, or a whole group of schools.
Andrew: That, like, an individual school can't be segregated. I mean, it can be internally segregated, but as a school, to know what you are segregating requires some baseline to compare it too.
Tomás: Yeah. For there to be segregation, you need to have at least two schools that are very different from each other in some meaningful way, right? Is it racial? Is it socioeconomics? White and Black? Is it Hispanic and White? But at the end of the day, you need at least two schools to call something segregated.
So there was this tension of saying, like, “Well, we obviously want to know which schools contribute the most to segregation,” but we want to be very precise about what we mean by that. We don't want to just mean, “Oh, this is a school with, you know, 75% Black kids.”
Andrew: Yeah. So it was really a chance to kind of clarify that, like, comparison piece between two schools or between two neighborhoods to really look at what is segregation.
Tomás: Yes. Exactly right. Diversity is not just having a lot of Black kids, a lot of Hispanic kids in a school, right? It's more complicated than that. Not only because race is a complicated concept to just try to categorize people, Right? We don't even get into that because we use a lot of census data where those choices have already been made for us, right?
So, I mean, I think there's a whole conversation to be had about that. Working with the data that we do have, we need a definition of diversity, right?
An integrated school is one that reflects, sort of, the composition of the district average, right? So, we had the example of Milwaukee. Milwaukee School District, as a whole, is 80% Black or Hispanic. Black and Hispanic students make up 80% of the population attending public schools. For that district, that is representative, 80%, right?
And seeing a school that is, say, 30% Black or Hispanic, which may be, you know, when you first look at it and you say, “Oh, well, you know, there's a good amount of Brown kids. That's integrated, right?” Well, no, actually that's a really White school for Milwaukee.
We are just trying to set the goalpost as the district composition as a whole and see how the school stands up to it.
Andrew: Here's the school district. If you randomly assigned every student from every, you know, demographic category to each school, you would have a school district that was fully desegregated, right. And so, what schools are contributing to the fact that we don't have that.
Tomás: Exactly, exactly, right. So even though, you know, it sounds like there is a lot of math going on, it's pretty intuitive.
Tomás: And our hope is that this makes it useful to those district policy makers.
Andrew: Right. One of the things that, that I think it really shifts the conversation on that you kind of hinted at a bit earlier was, like, a school that is 98% White, we don't often refer to as a segregated school. But obviously, it is, it is as segregated, if not even more segregated than a school that has 90% Black or 98%, you know, Latinx. What was the importance of kind of making that shift in the language with this report?
Tomás: So I think you're getting at, sort of, kind of like, the ultimate punchline of this work is that we introduced this measurement and we say, “Okay, actually let's compare it to the average composition of the district.”
What does that mean? That means any school that departs in a meaningful way from that, is going to be a segregating school, right? So then, a school that is 100% Black is going to be contributing to the segregation of Milwaukee, but a school that is 0% Black is going to be contributing even more.
Why? Because the district, on average, is 80% Black. And that's the way this index works is literally the gap in that percentage point is going to be much bigger for a totally White school than for a totally Black school, right? So it essentially is shifting the attention and the onus in a way, right? Of saying, “If we want to end segregation in these districts, focusing on the White schools might be the best bang for your buck” if you are, you know, the policy maker there. Holding all these political things aside, that maybe there'll be a revolt or something like that, right?
Andrew: Yeah. Just looking at the numbers though, right? You would say, you would say, “If we wanted a more integrated district-” And do you see that across cities? I mean, in the cities that I've kind of clicked through and looked at, it does seem like pretty consistently you find a handful of very White schools. And I mean, you know, certainly at Integrated Schools we know this kind of intuitively from the types of schools that we see White and/or privileged parents looking at and thinking about. Or, you know, being pushed to choose by their social networks. But we see a small handful of more White schools.
And, I mean in DC, maybe that's only, maybe that's 40% White. But that's still like a big concentration of Whiteness. A big concentration of privilege. And, at least in a lot of the graphs that I looked at, more often those are the ones that are the biggest contributors of segregation in the district than the handful of schools that are up at 99, 98, 97% students of color.
Tomás: Exactly. No, absolutely. I couldn't have said it better. We have these graphs that we made, essentially we can see how much each school is contributing to segregation. You can rank them, right, from the one that's contributing the most to the least.
And you're going to get both. Both tail ends, right? But I think the White schools have gotten a less degree of attention because, you know, when we had this, these policies with desegregation, busing, in the seventies. What was the solution? It was to go to those schools that were really, you know, high minority share, grab students, and send them to the White schools, right?
But it didn't really go the opposite. I think there are some cases where it did go the opposite way, right? Where there was White kids that were sent to the schools that were predominantly a minority. but that was not really your typical strategy, right? And I think it speaks to the way that we have been thinking about this problem as a whole.
And so we were trying to really kind of be clearer that pockets of privilege like you're talking about are probably the key drivers of segregation here. Not the schools that educate minority students. They have a role too, but it seems to be smaller than these pockets of privilege.
Andrew: We often struggle a lot here at Integrated Schools - to talk about what schools should you choose if you're a parent with racial, economic, educational privilege, what one school should you choose? It’s a really hard conversation to have. Local context change, you know, is that school Afrocentric, focused on Black excellence where your White kid probably is going to, like, cause more harm than good? Those sorts of questions get really hard.
But what, what the SCI seems to do, at least for me, is like, make it very clear what schools you should not choose. If you're committed to the idea of desegregation, if you're committed to the idea of doing your small part as just one family, of not contributing to ongoing segregation, it's pretty easy to look at the SCI and say, like, “Oh, wow. Okay. That school alone is 3% of the segregation in this district. Maybe I can not send my kid there. I don't know what school I will send my kid to, but at least I know I'm, you know, which ones to knock off my list to start with.”
Tomás: Exactly, right? And maybe it doesn't even need to be only because of you having a pro-social kind of beliefs of trying to improve society. Like, maybe you think that it wouldn't be the best thing for your child to attend this type of, like, racially isolated environment, right? We are at Urban Institute, we're trying to start building a body of evidence that talks about the harm of White isolation, right?
If you live in a city like Washington, DC, you know that when you go to college, when you get a job and you stay within the city, it's going to be a very diverse environment. And if your entire childhood has been in this world where everybody looks like you, everybody thinks like you, everybody comes from the same background as you. And then all of a sudden you're thrown into the labor force, and everything is different, that seems like a shock, right?
And I think, you know, in a sense, like, that's why diversity in schools is very important, not just for minority students, for White students as well.
Andrew: Yeah. I appreciate that. ‘Cause there is this, this kind of bigger picture idea that seems to be threaded through the SCI, which is that segregation is bad in both directions. That an all White school is bad and an all Black school is bad. And I can see carving out exceptions for all Black schools that are really, you know, doing that kind of, pro-Black HBCU style work. Like there, there is some argument to be made that that's not always bad. But it's really hard for me to see any scenario in which an all White school is actually good for the kids there.
Tomás: I agree, right? You know, I think a lot of Black intellectuals nowadays, right, are saying “We don't want integration,” right? Like, “My parents had to go through desegregation busing and to them it was traumatizing.” Right, like, “We don't want to go back to that. We are not going to advocate for integration.” I think all of those kinds of, like, ill feelings have to do with the way that segregation has been framed, right? Of saying, “A school that has a lot of minority students is doing really bad. We’ve got to save them and send them to the White school.”
I think the type of work that we're doing with the math here, even though it's not getting into any of these kind of more deep and difficult topics, it's just saying “No, it's both ways.” It's both ways, right?
You need to get some of those White kids into these Browner schools. You need to get some of these Brown kids into these White schools. That's how we create a more equitable society. It can't just be one way, right? We tried it when it goes one away and there are people that have had really bad experiences with it.
Andrew: Yeah. It's a relatively, mathematically, relatively simple index and yet it sort of gets us into all of these deeper, social questions. I guess that's the, that's the beauty of being an economist in this field, I guess.
Tomás: Yeah. I mean, yeah, that's what makes my, my cookie crumble.
Andrew: Yeah. So, so, you know, looking at these individual schools that are contributors to segregation in a district, I think, you know, you wrote that “the evidence showing the importance of integration to the wellbeing of students of color should compel policymakers to develop new desegregation programs that do not rely on the power of the courts.”
Is anyone doing that? Are, you know, are there policy makers out there that are, that are making you hopeful, that are looking at this data that you're providing? And cause, I mean, I'm guessing the idea is not just to, like, you know, do the math for the sake of the math, that there's some hope that you get some, social level traction out of doing this work. Are you seeing it show up in places that give you some hope?
Tomás: Sure. I mean, I couldn't totally claim that they're doing the work because they've seen my data. I think they have seen my data, and hopefully it helped them kind of understand segregation in their district a little bit more. But yes, I know, you know. For example, uh, San Francisco Unified School District just passed a new school assignment system, that is way more focused on integration. I know a little bit less about the details of their plan, but I think in San Antonio, independent school districts in Texas, they're trying to do a move for sustainable public school integration over there.
So yes, I think there are several sorts of school districts that have, you know, made moves towards trying to improve this.
One note that I have is that sometimes that backfires, right? So in 2007 Seattle School District implemented a pretty, I guess, somewhat aggressive integration plan where the individual race of an applicant could be considered in enrollment. And then that received a lawsuit. It went all the way up to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court shut it down, right? And the Supreme Court essentially said you cannot use the race of an individual for school enrollment, whether it's for integration or for anything.
Andrew: Parents Involved.
Tomás: Exactly. Parents involved. And there was this, you know, part of the opinion, I forget which of the justices, where they wrote, “This does not mean that school segregation is okay,” right?
“This just means that when you are looking to devise policies for integration, they cannot pick people at the individual level in that way. You can use the general makeup of neighborhoods when drawing school boundaries, as well as where you cite the schools,” and they kind of provided a list of tools that districts can use to further integration. And, my sense is that there's a good number of districts that are trying to.
Andrew: Yeah, for sure. I think there is some appetite for it. And one is, you know, there's certainly a greater focus now, I think, on socioeconomic integration, because that feels less problematic, at least from, you know, the reading of Parents Involved in the decision there.
But then also I think, you know, moving to, kind of, higher level looking at, you know, census blocks, looking at you know, boundaries rather than kind of individuals, student assignment policies. And that leads us nicely to your project that you just released, which is all about school boundaries. And wonder if you can tell us about that project and, you know, kind of how that can.
Tomás: Yeah. Thank you. So, yeah. So this latest report that we just published, is trying to focus a little bit more on the policy solutions. So for the SCI, what were we doing? We're looking at the entire school district and really kind of giving a number to each school to say, “How segregating is this school,” right? But we don't really ask why. We just want to provide the data and have it out there for users to be able to, sort of, reference to it.
In this next piece, we were focusing more on the policies that drive these patterns, right? So, as you probably know, most public schools in the country operate using school attendance boundaries. Or, I think they're also called catchment zones or attendance zones. They have different names in different places, right?
Andrew: But the idea is, “Here's, here's a map that's drawn around the school. If you live in this particular part of the map, you go to this school. If you live in this other part of the map, you go to this other school.”
Tomás: Exactly, right? And I think that's the way it was in my experience in El Paso. I don't know the way it was for you. You know, you have it, you know, what is your assigned school, right? Based on your address. And, most school districts have a way for you to sort of enroll in a different school. But, I actually remember this when I was growing up, we tried to do that. And, it's not that it's impossible, but there's definitely red tape, right? In the sense that you need to contact the district, they need to check, they might take a long time. It's not the easiest thing to not follow your assignment.
So, what we were doing in this project was literally looking at thousands and thousands of these maps that these districts have drawn and simply asking, “Can we get our computer to find specific lines in these attendance boundaries that are dividing individuals based on race?”
So, when we have all of these attendance boundaries, you have all of these boundaries that are kind of right next to each other. So there are multiple neighborhoods that are sort of divided by a line. And that line sort of doles out the right to attend School A or School B.
And so, what we did there is collect all of that data, link it to the census and start asking, “Where are the most unequal, neighboring public schools in the country,” right?
So what we have done here is published a list of more than 2,000 pairs of schools that are right next to each other, many of them are in the same school district, and they are separated by a line, right? And we get to see the neighborhood that is assigned to one school, and the neighborhood that is assigned to another school.
And in the map that we are providing you with this, we show you the demographics of the city within those boundaries there, and we have selected every single one that we have found there, where there is a whole bunch of White folks living on one side of the boundary, and then as soon as you cross the line, within 500 meters, right, - I'm not talking about like the other side of town - then you have only minority people. Such that the line seems to be carving out segregation as optimally as possible, many times. If you will, a racial gerrymandering. Exactly, right? So that's kinda the point of this feature here.
Andrew: You know, I think often school folks throw their hands up when you talk about school segregation and say, “Well, this is all about residential segregation.” And, like, no question, you look at these maps that you've released and, and you see the residential segregation very clearly.
But, the idea here is that you're talking about, you know, 500 meters on either side of a line, that you have these massive gaps. That those are areas where regardless of the underlying residential segregation, there's at least some hope. There's some possibility that with a slight tweak in a boundary line, you could actually have very different enrollment patterns. Is that the idea?
Tomás: That's exactly the idea. Many cases you have a line that is going from East to West, and everybody below that line is Black or Hispanic, and everybody above that line is White, right?
Our whole point is, if that line was instead of cutting from North to South, all of a sudden we're living in a more integrated world. Is it perfectly integrated? Did we fix the problem of racial inequality in the city? No. But it's a step in the right direction. And to anybody, like you were saying, to anybody that cares about racial equity, they would look at this line, at these maps, and say, “Well, why? This seems like, it seems like you're leaving a lot on the table here in terms of furthering equity,” right?
We understand that drawing those entire maps and having them, kind of, match up with the capacities of the schools and the special programs that the schools provide, that's a complicated thing. We're not saying districts need to remake that, right? We understand that's costly. There's politics. They need to hire consultants. It's a protracted process that, you know, no local government is looking forward to doing. We're saying, really just zoom in into these two schools. Look at this one line that follows along this street. You can see it in our tool when you zoom in, right? Why can't that line instead, follow along this other street. And you just make sure that when you redraw it that, you know, you have an equal number of population, kind of being traded off between the two schools.
Andrew: There's something inherent in the, in the idea behind it, I think, that feels kind of counter to the way that school policy often gets made. Which is, sort of, “This is not going to solve everything so we should just not do it.” You know, like “We can't possibly draw every boundary to be racially representative of the whole district, so let's not do any of it.” And this seems to be saying, like, “No, you can't. And, like, why shouldn't you do it in the places you can?” Similar to the SCI - like, “No, we can't make every school exactly representative of it. There's all sorts of underlying problems with that. But, why shouldn't we do the things that we can, where we can do them?”
Tomás: Absolutely, right? Like, I put on my economist hat when I'm looking at this, right? You gotta take the little wins, the marginal wins. And I think that's an important thing to keep in mind here. Yeah, the problem is not just going to go away all of a sudden, but, we can't maintain some of these lines that are really clearly a legacy of our historic roots in racist policy, right?
So, what I think is interesting here is that our report, it's not only kind of highlighting that these racially divisive lines exist, we're also kind of doing an analysis with the HOLC's 1930s redlining maps. So there, we essentially have the redlining maps of the cities, and we overlaid that with our school attendance boundary maps. And we highlighted that very often the case, when there is a racially unequal school boundary, it actually coincides with the red lining division, right?
Andrew: Yeah. I mean, I found this part fascinating, that the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation that, you know, created in the New Deal, that they kind of drew these maps around the city that led to so much of the residential segregation that we see that, you know, where the term redlining comes from, that these lines that they drew were matching up with current school boundary lines.
Tomás: This is way back in the 1930s, right? So we're not saying that there was some ill intended school district policy maker that drew this line to make it as racially segregated as possible. It is clear that these divisions are, to the districts, “natural.” They have always been there, right? They were there before they even got there, right? And trying to change it, maybe it seems like trying to change history. But if we're gonna change the legacy of racist policy in the U.S. that's exactly what it's going to take.
So I think that's an additional way that I would motivate these small gains, right? So maybe for this one line, if you improve it, you won't completely get rid of the problem with segregation in your district, but at least you will get rid of the legacy of these redlining maps and the racist era of our government in this country, right? I think that's important to erase.
Andrew: Yeah, that, that part speaks to that idea that this is not de facto. This is not just the way people naturally segregate themselves. That this is not some kind of part of human nature, but really this is about government intervention. And if we have this really narrow time horizon where, like, I got elected to the school board last year, these boundaries looked like this last year, they're probably going to look like this in four years. We just keep perpetuating this year, after year, after year. Without the recognition that the only reason these boundaries are so segregated, the only reason that you look at this boundary and see 500 meters on one side is all Black and Brown kids, and 500 meters on the other side is all White kids, is not because that's naturally the state of affairs, but it's because the government actually intervened back, you know, way back when, in the thirties, and the forties, and the fifties, in kind of creating those boundaries in the first place.
Tomás: That's exactly the type of argument that we're trying to make in the paper, right? The evidence that we have at the end of the day is just that these maps match up too well for it to be a coincidence. Yeah.
Andrew: Yeah, I think the other thing I found really fascinating was that you, you know, you didn't just stop at the demographics of the schools in, you know, in looking at these kinds of correlations. There's also the test scores. There's, you know, how many counselors they have, the teacher experience, the presence of security guards, all of these things are correlated with this.
And I mean, it’s not, it’s not surprising, I guess, that those things go together. I mean, one of the big problems with segregation is that resources tend to follow White kids. Is that the way we invest in schools is different based on, you know, the race of those kids.
And so to see that, you know, all of the schools on one side of a line have security guards, and all the schools on the other side of the line have college counselors is not, I guess, not shocking. But it should, it should shock us, right? Like it should be-
Tomás: Exactly, it shocks me.
Andrew: It's only not shocking because it feels like that's just the natural state of affairs, but it's not.
Tomás: Exactly. That's why I thought it was very important to really contextualize the way that these schools are different, right? I mean, my guess is that if we were able to also look at data on the state of the building, right? Of whether there is good air conditioning or heating. Computer labs, right?
Andrew: How many books are in the library?
Tomás: Absolutely. Right. Like these types of things that we know they're out of the hands of any family or student, right? When we were doing this analysis, we wanted to paint the picture that it's clear that these schools aren't just different because the students are different in terms of race, right?
We found that the teachers had different levels of experience. The teachers had different likelihoods of being absent, right? We saw that there was different number of seats available to, sort of, AP programs, International Baccalaureate programs, and gifted and talented programs.
We saw the presence of the security guards. Just trying to, sort of, paint a picture that the instructional experience on one side of the boundary seems to be quite different from the other side of the boundary, right? I think just really paints a picture that there's clearly an element of, you know, the, the school districts kind of having different levels of resources for these two different schools.
Andrew: The opportunities that they're providing to the kids in the building in the first place. And again, like we're talking about schools that share a boundary, that are right next to each other. You know, we're not talking about schools that are, you know, even on opposite sides of the city, one school in East Austin and one school in West Austin. We're talking about schools that are actually, literally, you know, there is a line down the middle where you know, kids on one side go to one school and kids on the other, go to the other.
Tomás: Exactly. You can frequently walk, you know, about 15 minutes between the two schools, right? And for them to be so vastly different, that really speaks to how inequality in our public schools is really, kind of happening in a micro geographic level, if you will.
Andrew: Right. Yeah. Can you speak a little bit about the, kind of, like, the scale of the problem? You know, you looked at something like 47,000 school boundaries? How often is this kind of extreme segregation showing up?
Tomás: Yeah, I'm glad that you're qualifying it that way, right? So we really identified extreme instances of inequality between neighboring schools, right? The way that we defined extreme inequality is that the fraction of students had to be at least 25 percentage points different on one side versus the other, right? So if, on one side you had 25%, on the other side, you had to have 50% or more to make it to our list, right?
We found that about 6% of all pairs of schools in metropolitan areas had this type of feature, right? Which, I know that 6% doesn't really strike some folks as like, the biggest number in the world. But, you know, you gotta think about how this data is really carving out our city, right?
If you have a city, like we were talking about Austin, or the same way in Washington, D.C. The way that this tool is going to operate, is that it's essentially going to find the boundary line that is dividing the two sides of the city, right? Once you're looking at the map of school attendance boundaries, you will be able to say, “Okay, this is the boundary where the White side ends, and this is the boundary where the Brown side begins. Everything on this side, well, that's not racially unequal boundaries because everyone is Black on this side. And on the other side,” you know, so that's why that 6% number, I think, strikes people a little bit, like it's a small number, but it's really about the geography of the city.
And it's really, like I said, it's all about tabulating, where is the low hanging fruit for achieving racial integration? It's going to be at the racial border of the city.
Andrew: Way off on the White side, you've got, you've got a school that is equally dissimilar from a school way off on the Black or Brown side, but those don't show up because their boundaries aren’t next to each other. Not to say that those aren't a problem, but to say, like, “If you care about getting the low hanging fruit, if you care about doing something quickly, here are the places where, you know, small changes could make big impacts.”
Tomás: Exactly. Here are the places where a tiny little bit of surgery in that map is going to go a long way. If you want to make a difference for the, the school that is all the way segregated in the, you know, isolated in, in another part of the city compared to another one, you're going to need a different strategy, right? You're, it's not going to be about the school boundaries there.
Andrew: But again, do what you can, right? Like, just, just because it won't work everywhere, doesn't mean you shouldn't do it where it will work.
Tomás: Exactly, right? I think, you know, ending the problem with school segregation is not going to take just, like, one idea like this school boundary idea. It’s going to take a lot of these types of ideas and a lot of these types of analyses. We have data on thousands and thousands of school attendance boundaries, and, you know, we now have the ability with today's computing power to sort of just grab that really big map, lay it on top of the census data and really just ask “Where are the really big inequalities,” right? So as the data starts getting better, we’ll get better and better at understanding all of these low hanging fruits that are everywhere to try to fix the problem. And then hopefully if you pick all of them, then you really make a big, big improvement to everything.
Andrew: Right. What data do you wish you had? What's the, what's like the thing out there you're like, “Ahh! I wish this question was on the census,” or “I wish somebody had compiled this” or, you know, “I wish we could find this sort of information”?
Tomás: I wish we had data on why people move to where they move, right? If somebody is really choosing their residence, I would love to know a little bit more about that decision making process, right? And the trade-offs that families make.
Like, we know that there was a really big backlash of racist fury in the 1960s when these things started being talked about, right? I am a hopeful type. I, I want to say that we wouldn't get something like that, again. That we have evolved past that. Maybe things have just gotten more complicated or more, kind of, shaded and people talk about, maybe they just don't use the same words, but they feel the same way. I want to say that people are actually better nowadays, so I would just like to understand this preference factor a lot more. I would like to know to what extent would people really move or really kind of raise up in upheaval if we were trying to resolve these issues.
The reason I want to investigate that is because I find that a lot of school boards, a lot of school districts, that that's kind of their key fear for pursuing these types of integration policies, right? Is that there's going to be a revolt. That there's going to be massive depreciation of housing values. That there's, yeah, White flight of all sorts, right? Maybe it's actually White people moving, that's one type of White flight. But another type of White flight is maybe they all vote to become their own district or something like that.
So data on the decision-making process of families and to really understand those preferences, those sort of, you know, unintended consequences of these policies, I think is the next step in, in our study of this.
Andrew: Yeah. I would love to see what you come up with because it does feel, it feels really complicated because, you know, there's the sneaky ways that White supremacy works its way into all of these things about, you know, how we talk about school quality, about the ways that we rate schools.
The way we talk about what it means to be a good parent is, like, get the best for your kid. And the number of people who, with no hesitation talk about, “I moved here for the schools.” There is some truth to their own preference for those schools, but then there's also the fact that, like, “If I'm moving here for the schools, I know other people are moving here for the schools, so my investment is more likely to hold its value - the, like, housing value thing - even if I don't really care about the schools, like, I want to buy into a good school boundary because my house will retain its value better.” So, good luck. Good luck teasing that out!
Tomás: Well you're asking for ideal data, so I went all the way.
Andrew: No, I love it! Yeah, for sure. Just kind of to wrap up, what's your big, big hope in doing this? Like, obviously a tremendous amount of work. You've devoted a lot of your life to it. You are passionate about data, I can tell, but also passionate about the ways that it gets us at these deeper underlying social things. What's, what's your big hope in doing this work?
Tomás: Yeah, I mean, I think I'm very much on the bandwagon of data science for social good, right? Like, that is what kind of moves me. That kind of is what makes me passionate about my career, is that too many of the folks that are really good at quantitative science, you know, just to make it full circle, too many of the folks that I met in my training and economics have, you know, these, kind of, quantitative skills that are really powerful, but they're often just going to, you know, for-profit type of industries. Or they’re studying good things, but just, like, macroeconomics. Obviously those things are very important, right? But, I wanted to bring, what moves me everyday, what I want to get out of this, is to motivate younger folks like me to sort of take those quantitative skills and apply them to the social problems that we have today. The social inequities that we have today, to really, kind of, change the conversation on a lot of these topics, right?
We, we've had a lot of great social science come out, you know, through the later half of this last century, rrom sociology, from economics, from anthropology, psychology, about why we have these types of social problems, but only now do we have massive amount of data, massive amount of computing power to really try to study these theories, to really try to get at these micro drivers of inequality, right? And to really kind of get computers to help us along with these problems, right? So that's kinda what makes me excited! I hope that people keep doing this type of work, and I hope that I can be an inspiration on at least one or two.
Andrew: Yeah. Well, yeah, I'm so grateful for the work that you do, ror the ways that you're shifting the conversation, even through, you know, what is, what is clearly just, like, good economics, but also really getting at these deeper social issues. So,
Tomás: Thank you, Andrew. That's very kind of you.
Andrew: And I really appreciate your time coming on the show!
Tomás: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure. Nice, nice chatting to you.
Andrew: So Val, what did you think?
Val: That was such a rich episode. He starts right off from the beginning talking about how there's an over-representation of individual choice when it comes to these segregated spaces, and not naming enough, the history involved and the government influence in segregating these spaces from the very beginning with racial covenants in neighborhoods, et cetera.
And, I'm wondering, even in the Integrated Schools community, how much conversation is there around really advocating our government officials to help change some of these policies, right? So, in addition to making the individual choices, but, like, how are we looking at it from a systems standpoint?
Andrew: Mmm. I think there's sort of two pieces of that. One is, like, how much of the history do we actually know? I think about, like, Richard Rothstein’s Color of Law that, like, one of those books that totally changed how I view the world and how I view, like, where we are right now and-
Val: Andrew, that one was a tough read!
Andrew: Yeah. I think back to our conversation with Elizabeth McRae about, you know, Mothers of Massive Resistance and the sort of constant gardening of White supremacy. That there's this, like, way in which we say, “This is just the natural state of affairs.” What I love about Tomás’ work is that it's, like, pushing back on this and saying, like, “No, it's not the natural state of affairs.” You know, you can't look at these school boundaries where on one side is all White and on the other side is all Black and Brown, and that line perfectly matches up with the red lining line from 1930s and say, “This is just the natural state of affairs,” you know, like, this is clearly government intervention. And if the government can intervene without us knowing that the government is intervening, like, that's how White supremacy just keeps getting perpetuated.
Val: I think that knowing that history in that hidden way that segregation has been intentional in our spaces, we really need to question that, and think hard about that, and what we want to do about that as active citizens. Because we do have agency in this.
Andrew: And maybe again, this is sort of what Tomás' data leads us to. You can understand the history, you can say, “I don't want that to continue,” but like, we actually have to take active steps to undo it.
You know, this idea that no school board member was like, “Ooh, let's draw this racially segregating line.” They look at the line, they're like, “Oh, it's always been that way. Let's just keep it that way.” Unless we're taking the active role, which I think is sort of what you're saying here, is, like, we as citizens have to take an active role in undoing this stuff. Not just not perpetuating it.
Val: Absolutely, because anti-racism is an action. There’s things that we have to do, right?
So, a couple of things stopped me in my tracks when listening. Um. The one point when Tomás said “You get more bang for your buck when desegregating White schools,” you want to talk to me a little bit about that and how that landed for you?
Andrew: Yeah. I mean, this is the thing that really felt like a shift for me when I came across his work and why I was so excited he agreed to come on the show. Because so often we think of segregation as meaning “concentrations of Black and Brown kids.” And we don't think of segregation as meaning White kids.
And, and so I, you know, I found this, the SCI report in there, there's a link in the show notes, you can go and put in your own city and click through and see. And so I, you know, I went to Denver, and the school where my oldest was for first grade - the, like, nice fancy White school down the block where, where we sent her before we moved her back to the school that I went to - that school alone is something like two and a half percent of the segregation for the whole district of 220 schools.
And, I felt like there was something about that school that didn't sit right with me? But everything that you would look up about that school says this is a great school, right? It is, in theory, everything that you would want a school to be, and yet, here it is like resulting in so much segregation. And I think that that's the, you know, you can look at the handful of schools that are 99% kids of color, like, those are not what's driving segregation in a district like Denver public schools.
Val: Can I tell you something that's probably not surprising?
Val: My kid's school is 2.4%. Yeah. Yeah. The district Black and Hispanic enrollment is 56.8, and the school’s Black or Hispanic enrollment is 78.9. And I told you, like, we live in a, in a multi-racial neighborhood. And I don't know where the White kids go to school! Because they don't go to my kid's school, which is two miles away.
And so, I think it's wild that our numbers are exactly the same.
Andrew: In the opposite direction.
Val: Yeah. For opposite reasons.
So to the point of, like, desegregating White schools will get more “bang for our buck,” I read that, um, Martin Luther King told Harry Belafonte, he confided in him, quote, “I fear I am integrating my people into a burning house.” And so, thinking about, while we might get the most “bang for our buck,” you know, integrating White spaces, like what does that mean for the students of color who are going in there if our White comrades have not done the work of addressing their own bias, racism, everything else, right?
So, that seems like a more painful option. And I think you hear lots of stories, lots of anecdotes from children of color who have had that experience. Like, “Why did you send me here when it was the worst experience possible?”
Andrew: Soul crushing. Yeah. I mean, we come back to desegregation verses integration, right? Like, you get the most desegregation “bang for your buck” by focusing on White schools, but you don't actually get integration “bang for your buck” unless you're doing the work.
And I mean, I think, I think, and I, I certainly don't think that Tomás would deny this or ignore this. But I think the piece that, that feels like it's sort of missing from the conversation that we had at least was, you don't just solve the problem by redrawing the boundaries. To your point about desegregating an all White school, sending some more Black kids to that all White school doesn't solve the problem unless you've done some work at that all White school.
Val: Yeah. And Tomás said it's going to take multiple solutions, right? So, I know we told them last week that we were going to have solutions!
Andrew: We did! We did promise.
Val: And we did promise that we're going to have solutions. Um, you have anything that you think might be a good first step?
Val: For our listeners?
Andrew: Throw that on me? Just, like, solve all of the problems because we promised it? You're the one who promised it, Val!
Val: Well, I think what is fair for folks is letting them hear us grapple with what this information that we now have means, right? What does it mean for our own actions and things that we want to do differently?
If I can just speak for myself, it's difficult to hear this and know how deeply the structures of segregation are in place and still feel hopeful, right? You're like, “Ugh, you know, what am I supposed to do now?” And I've always been one to try to act in the face of hopelessness because, I mean, what else am I going to do? You know? And so, I don't think that we have to have the perfect solution, but I think, what comes next? I don't, I don't, I don't have an answer! But I'm willing to, I'm willing to grapple with you. I'm willing to grapple with you.
Andrew: Yeah. I mean, I think, and I do, I find some hope in, just in Tomás' work, even, you know, he, he talks about the Parents Involved case and how, you know, basically the Supreme Court says, you know, that John Roberts says, “If you want to stop discriminating on the basis of race, stop discriminating on the basis of race,” which is like a real nice “race neutral” framing of something that is, like, actually you can't just decide that we are not going to care about race anymore. To our point about, you know, you have to actively undo the harm that has been done.
And we had the Milliken v Bradley. And people can go back and listen to Michelle Adams, walked us through from Plessy v Ferguson to Brown v Board to Milken v Bradley to Parents Involved, sort of the, like, arc of desegregation law in the country. And Tomás has sort of said like, yeah, like we're, we're sort of in a spot where it would be nice to have more tools, but that doesn't mean we should just throw up our hands and give up. There are still places where even given the Supreme Court's decision, we can still have some impact. We can look at these borders. We can look at these schools that are contributing the most segregation, and we can start trying to do something about it, even, you know, it's not going to fix everything, but, but we should still try what we can.
Val: Yeah, I think my, my, my kid's school is beautiful. It's nice. I think it has everything that it needs in terms of schools. And my husband, who is also a teacher in the district, he went to another high school today, in a mostly White part of town. He’s at this school for a meeting and he calls me, he was like, “Honey, they have this huge courtyard. They have an art gallery. They have their own cross country course on their campus.”
Andrew: This is a public school.
Val: This is a public school. I'm like, “What!?” How is it still so different -the experience, right? And so, that feels... it's annoying, because I think, it's just a reminder that unfortunately, and I don't, I can't say if this is a all White or affluent, I would, I'm going to ask you to speak for all White people here, but like, is it just the desire to have the very best of everything for your child? Is it resource hoarding? Is it “I just didn't know”? Is it, like, what is it? And then, what is happening in the school system that such disparities are allowed? Like every campus doesn't have a courtyard and an art gallery and a cross country course.
Andrew: Right. I think to answer your question, it is, it is, like, all of the above, right? Some bit of it is this, like, sneaky White supremacy, the kind of, the ways that it, we're feeding from the constantly tended garden without even knowing it, right? That we are unaware of the ways that racism is baked into all of these things.
Some piece of it is like, “Oh, I got to get the best for my kid.” I mean, like, when we moved to Denver, I didn't know, I hadn't thought much about schools. You know, I had a four year old. Like we, you know, I was like, “Oh, I don't really know about this, let me find somebody who knows more than me. Oh, look, they say, this is a good school. We can afford to live in this - Great! Okay.” That's what I'm supposed to do. You know, I'm supposed to buy my house because it's got good schools, right? That's baked into real estate. That's the way that we talk about it, the social pressures are to get what's best. So some piece of it is that.
Some piece of it is like, is definitely resource hoarding. Some piece of it is the ways that we've been conditioned to not see that as being about race when it really is.
And then I think there's a piece of it that is like why we have race at all, right? You can't look at a school with a cross country track on its campus and a school with, like, barbed wire and, and, you know, no toilet paper in the bathroom,
Val: Val’s school.
Andrew: Right! And not say “Some people deserve more than other people.” Right. Like, there has to be some hierarchy of human value for that to be okay! And, and for the system to arrive at that, there have to be not just, like, one person. You know, it's not like Machiavelli sitting like plotting that, like, that has to be baked into everybody's understanding of what it means to, you know, I mean, this is the meritocracy. This is, this is, like “Who's worthy of what? Who has potential? Who is worth investing in? As a society who are, who are, who do we think is worth investing in?”
Val: That's heavy! I don't know if I'm coming back!
Andrew: I don't think that's the answer. I don't think we've solved it, Val!
Val: I’m kidding. I'm kidding, listeners. I'm kidding. Um, to all the listeners out there, people of color, under-resourced folks, White folks, everybody who does not have a cross country course at your school, you are still worthy, and I love you.
Andrew: Yeah. Well, you know, I mean, to your question about kind of like actions, what do we do with all this?
Val: Well, okay, here's definitely what everybody can do. Everybody can go to the segregation index and just find out the information. Because information is power, and they may not know, kind of, where their school sits in that? And that might be horrifying for some folks and they'll be wanting to make some changes.
Andrew: So here, here's what I want to ask you, Val. So we, you know, we talked about the ways in which we are led to believe the myth of defacto segregation. Like, there is not defacto. Segregation doesn't just happen, it is created by the government. But, like, without the government interference in that, what amount of segregation is natural?
Like, there is something to the, like, “I want to be around people who I feel comfortable with.” Like, how much of that is natural?
Val: Well, I think segregation is as natural as the White racial terror that Black people had to face when they moved into predominantly White neighborhoods.
Val: Because here's the thing. if we looked at, tree equity, it would take 500 million trees to have equitable trees in neighborhoods, right? In this country, 500 million. I want to live in a place with trees. I'm going to try to find a place with trees. But if I am a Black person moving into that neighborhood, and I'm not welcome there,
Andrew: The trees aren't going to make you-
Andrew: stay, right.
Val: I got to get out! If I was forced to pick an all White space for my kids to learn, or an identity affirming space where they might not get, like, all the AP classes or the cross country course, I'm picking the identity affirming one, because I can supplement the rest, right?
So, many of these choices, I think I can say Black people, when are choosing spaces like HBCUs and Black neighborhoods, it's really about making sure you have the fuel to go out and do the rest of the world, right?
Val: If you're not comfortable at home, if you're not comfortable at school, it's just going to be harder to go out there and live!
Val: You know, it's going to be harder. And so, I think we have to be clear that one of the reasons we don't have more integrated spaces is because when we try to integrate, Black and Brown people tried to integrate, we were met with violence and death. It was an enforced segregation - violently enforced segregation, policy enforced segregation. And, we're trying to live!
Val: Just like everybody else.
Andrew: Yeah. Well, hopefully these conversations, uh, give people a place to at least start thinking about doing better.
Val: Yeah, I think-
Andrew: I don't know that we necessarily lived up to solving it all, but next episode is definitely when we, uh, when we knock that one out.
Val: I'm pretty sure next episode’s going to be so dope. I think we're shooting up to the top of the charts, even though all these conversations are very difficult.
Andrew: Yeah. I mean, I, yeah, I continue to just be so grateful that there is an audience out there. That people are willing to come along and listen and engage and think about these things because, yeah.
Val: Same. That means a lot.
Andrew: It's not easy, but yeah. The, the feedback that we've gotten, certainly since you have joined, Val. We've gotten so much positive feedback and so many people who feel moved, and wanting to participate and, and even so many people who want to join our Patreon!
I'm just going to slide right into the plug here! We had a great Patreon happy hour a couple of days ago. Um, which was a great conversation, Val joined us. So, if you want to join us for some of that, hit up patreon.com/integratedschools. Support this work and also, uh, get a chance to connect with us and with other listeners as well. We'd be really grateful for your support.
Let us know what you think, [email protected], hit us up on social media at Integrated Schools.
And as always, Val, I'm grateful to be in this with you as I try to know better and do better.
Val: See you next time.