HomeLearning CenterFor School Districts, Just Like Voting Districts, Equality Depends on a Fair Map

For School Districts, Just Like Voting Districts, Equality Depends on a Fair Map

Originally published by Zahava Stadler for New America

On May 23, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Alexander v. South Carolina NAACP, a case challenging South Carolina’s map of congressional districts. A six-justice conservative majority used the case to sharply limit the circumstances in which federal courts can order new legislative maps to address racial gerrymandering. Justice Clarence Thomas went further than his colleagues, though, writing a separate, concurring opinion that took a startling position: judges should stay out of redistricting entirely. He argued that courts should have no power to draw political boundaries, even to remedy constitutional violations—and claimed the Supreme Court’s activity in this area dated back only to the 1950s, originally in connection not with voting rights, but school desegregation. He referenced a 1955 holding that in some cases, to integrate public schools, courts may require changes to school district boundaries.

Justice Thomas is right to see a link between school and legislative redistricting, even if he draws the wrong conclusion about whether the courts should be involved. Just like legislative districts, the boundaries of school districts do a huge amount to determine social and democratic equality in America. And just like legislative districts, the boundaries of school districts should be intentionally drawn to produce better, fairer public systems.

School district boundaries do two things. First, they define the area in which a particular set of children can go to a specific group of schools. And second, they outline the local taxing jurisdiction that supports those schools. Together, these two functions mean that a district’s boundary does a great deal to determine whether its students will have a diverse or segregated school system, and whether its schools will have access to the funding that students need to learn and thrive. Integrated and fairly resourced school systems are the foundation of a society where people of all races can live and work together and succeed on equal terms. But far too often, as our research has shown, district lines are drawn to separate students both from resources and from each other. In many cases, districts could be redrawn to include racially and economically mixed communities, though this happens all too rarely.

Legislative redistricting gets more public attention than school redistricting, perhaps because it happens relatively often. Voting districts get redrawn after each decennial census to account for changes in population. That means two things. First, there is a regularly scheduled adjustment meant to keep things fair. And second, there are regular openings for manipulation that can make things unfair, most often through partisan or racial gerrymandering. People tend to see clearly why this is dangerous—how it can distort our democracy to give some groups disproportionately more or less weight in elections.

In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that gerrymandering can violate the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. Over the next few decades, the Court continued revisiting the issue of voting district maps, refining the rules for ensuring fair and equal representation of the public by population size, race, and party affiliation. In the last few years, however, the Court’s rulings have taken a turn in the other direction. A 2019 decision held that partisan gerrymandering—drawing districts to disproportionately advantage one political party over the other—wasn’t a violation that courts could address. The new ruling in Alexander represents another big step back. While it formally keeps the standard that racial gerrymanders are a constitutional problem, it significantly raises the bar for evidence of racial targeting, making them far harder to address through the courts.

The Supreme Court’s approach to school redistricting for desegregation has followed a similar advance-and-retreat course. After finding in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated public schools violated the U.S. Constitution, the Court returned to the case in 1955’s Brown II, outlining ways in which courts might enforce desegregation rulings. These included “revision of school districts… to achieve a system of determining admission to the public schools on a nonracial basis”—in other words, redrawing school district boundaries so that they would no longer sort students into segregated schools. (This is the line that drew Justice Thomas’s ire.) Over the next twenty years, the justices repeatedly heard school segregation cases, tightening enforcement of desegregation orders and refining oversight mechanisms. In 1972, the Court returned to the specific topic of school district boundaries. In two cases decided on the same day, the Court ruled that states could not draw new, largely single-race “splinter districts” if those new districts would interfere with the desegregation of the district left behind.

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