A half-century of research demonstrates that having schools with high concentrations of poverty can be detrimental to students. Socioeconomically and racially diverse schools not only provide cognitive and civic benefits to all students, they also narrow achievement gaps by raising the scores of the least-advantaged students, while letting their wealthier classmates continue to thrive. And yet, despite this overwhelming evidence, Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia—serving one of the wealthiest counties in the nation—is recklessly considering a redistricting plan that would intentionally concentrate hundreds of low-income and Hispanic children into two elementary schools.

What is their rationale for this ill-advised plan? School board member Jill Turgeon explained, “I think there are a lot of benefits in allowing a natural grouping of the students according to their neighborhood.”

Let’s unpack this statement—namely, the fundamentally flawed and anti-historical notion of the “natural” neighborhood.

Ms. Turgeon’s description of a neighborhood school as a “natural grouping” betrays a negligent whitewashing of fact. Within any given county, American neighborhoods are rarely separated because of creeks, rivers, and mountain ranges. Contemporary neighborhoods are not divinely ordained land divisions, planted into the ground with immovable force. Nor were they formed as social classes and races “naturally” gravitated toward their own. Rather, neighborhoods were, and continue to be, constructed through man-made political and economic decisions and processes—ones too often designed to propagate racial and social segregation.

There Are No “Natural Neighborhoods”

Neighborhood-level concentrated poverty and racial segregation are direct results of past and present policy choices. This is not just a history of a few real estate agents not showing certain families homes in certain neighborhoods—no less than the federal government itself played a critical role in creating, maintaining, and perpetuating housing segregation. The Underwriting Manuals of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA)—which underwrote $120 billion in new housing between 1934 and 1962—considered blacks an adverse influence on property values, warned against insuring mortgages for homes in racially mixed neighborhoods, and counseled lenders to reject or give poor ratings to loan applicants from minority neighborhoods. The FHA’s chief economist, a man named Homer Hoyt, developed a racial ranking scale that positioned “Mexicans” and “Negroes” as the least-desirable neighborhood residents, and worked with the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) to map cities and divide areas into various risk categories based on that ethnic hierarchy. Homebuyers seeking to purchase in “red” zone neighborhoods—those with high percentages of black or Hispanic residents, regardless of wealth or class—would likely be denied a mortgage loan, and if they received one, it would be risky, speculative, and expensive.

The FHA continued to recommend the use of racially restrictive housing covenants for a full two years after the Supreme Court declared their enforcement unconstitutional. And the real estate industry continued to use racial rankings until 1977, when the Justice Department finally filed suit. Meanwhile, the private sector adopted these government policies. The Code of Ethics of the National Association of Real Estate Boards (now the National Association of Realtors) included a provision that prohibited realtors from being “instrumental” in introducing persons of any race or nationality into a neighborhood that would be “detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.”

The results of these deliberate actions: Of all of the homeownership loans approved by the government between 1934 and 1968, whites received 98 percent of them.

As urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s sought to eliminate “blighted” areas and provide federal subsidies for cities struggling with housing shortages, over 20 percent of housing units occupied by African Americans were destroyed; of those, 90 percent were never replaced. Public housing became the sole option for many of the displaced. But the lion’s share of public housing options stood in densely populated “projects,” located in racially and economically isolated areas. When former Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary Henry Cisneros testified before Congress in 1995, he acknowledged that HUD’s policies too often aggravated rather than resolved housing and neighborhood segregation.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibits housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin, was a step in the right direction. But a combination of lax enforcement, personal biases, steering practices, and zoning policies limit its reach. Currently, a black family that earns $157,000 a year is less likely to qualify for a prime loan than a white family that earns $40,000, which means white families can borrow heavily at favorable rates, while black families are far less likely to receive a safe, fair loan product.

In a recent interview, Myron Orfield of the Institute for Metropolitan Opportunity identified realtor bias as another reason why minority families are steered toward some parts of the suburbs while white families are sent elsewhere. Exclusionary zoning—a pervasive policy that mandates new construction in certain municipalities conform to a certain lot size or home type—also acts to restrict whole neighborhoods from lower-income people. The racial implications of the practices aren’t lost either, as several studies demonstrate that the role of racial bias against blacks and Hispanics in home and neighborhood selection and appraisal is enormous and troubling.  

Mapping Neighborhood Segregation onto Our Schools

Claims that promote the mythology of “naturally” segregated neighborhoods are not only wrong, but offensive. The legacy of state-sponsored discrimination is stamped upon the landscape that we live in today. To assert that neighborhoods constitute a “natural grouping” of students—and that, despite the mess of racist policies and prejudiced behaviors that formed those very neighborhoods, we ought to tie the educational futures of underprivileged children to their zip codes—is unconscionable.

It benefits skeptical school board members to conveniently ignore the shady ways in which our communities have been sliced and diced by class warfare and racial politics. If they were to concede the fact that neighborhood segregation was both instigated by and sustained through government-approved systems, then refusing to deviate from the neighborhood-based model of student assignment would be a tacit endorsement of school segregation. Indeed, if we rely on housing patterns to sort children into schools, we ought to question whether the type of segregation that results is de facto, or de jure.

The largely Hispanic, largely low-income, disproportionately ELL student population that Loudoun County now contemplates resegregating deserves better. The school board, and the community it serves, needs to have some serious conversations about the roles that race, economics, and history play in creating their schools and neighborhoods. Rather than just having a hunch or belief that having highly segregated, impoverished schools will somehow benefit students, school officials should explore the vast body of research that says the opposite. Rather than assume that neighborhoods are “natural groupings” of families, school board members should consider the constraints on choices and opportunities that led to those groupings.

And beyond Loudoun County, it’s way past time that community members and leaders had a frank conversation about why neighborhood divisions—and thus neighborhood schools—sprung up where and when they did. Maybe then, we would think twice about using neighborhood as the school assignment default status.