SBP: School attendance zone boundaries and the connection to neighborhoods, segregation, and access to educational opportunity

Project: Research project

Project Details


Schools are a critical site affecting social opportunity. Research shows that ethno-racially diverse schools benefit all students, particularly black and Latino students; they also benefit communities and society as improved school outcomes generate benefits throughout a student's life. Nevertheless, school segregation is rising even in diversifying communities. The reasons for this are obscured by an absence of data on how school districts are adjusting the catchment areas among their schools. These adjustments can be attributed to changing demand for schools driven by demographic and housing market changes but can also reflect changes linked to the end of court supervision, and the advent of school choice policies, including the rise of charter schools. This project will illuminate the mechanisms driving continued school segregation and those that are producing integration to guide policy at all levels of government. Because of the multifaceted effects of segregation, understanding the relationship between residential sorting and school segregation will advance the health, prosperity and welfare of the nation.

Given the role that school attendance zones play in shaping outcomes for students and the housing market that drives residential sorting, it is remarkable that little information exists on when, if, or how school districts have changed attendance zone boundaries in recent decades. We know that school districts frequently adjust attendance boundaries with outcomes that vary by district demographic, legal, and policy characteristics. Such changes are likely to (a) be more frequent, and produce higher educational segregation, in suburban and heterogeneous districts; (b) strengthen the link between school and residential segregation in recent decades for districts formerly under court supervision; and (c) promote lower school segregation in districts with voluntary integration policies. We also know that school choice has decoupled residential location and school attendance, albeit unequally across racial groups. To evaluate the operation of these mechanisms, this project will develop a new data source, the Longitudinal School Attendance Boundaries (LSABs), to capture boundary and population composition changes for 1990 to 2020. National-level data on attendance zone boundaries exists but these data offer a snapshot between 2010 and 2015 with little opportunity to examine change over a longer period of time corresponding with demographic and policy changes. This project will collect data on both current (2019-20) and historic (1990 and 2000) school attendance zone boundaries to permit analyses of how school districts have changed over the past thirty years. When combined with demographic data as well as information on school choice policies, these data will represent a significant advance for understanding the links between residential and school sorting processes. Unpacking the relationships among these demographic, market, and policy changes contributes to sociological literatures that examine inequality through the lens of residential sorting, racial segregation, school quality, and neighborhood effects.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Effective start/end date9/1/198/31/23


  • National Science Foundation: $385,000.00


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