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NEPC Review: Balancing Act: Schools, Neighborhoods, and Racial Imbalance (Brookings Institution, November 2017)

Balancing Act explores the racial imbalance of schools and neighborhoods across the nation, finding that the racial composition of schools often reflects the surrounding neighborhoods. It suggests that racially concentrated schools are the result of residential segregation and how school district boundaries are drawn to separate populations. The authors also posit that charter schools, which are freed from the constraints of traditional boundaries, can interrupt the school-housing relationship. Yet the report finds that charter schools are, on average, more racially imbalanced than other public schools. The report deserves credit for tackling the complicated relationship between school and housing segregation, and for bringing renewed attention to issues that are often considered separately. Still, a shaky grounding in the research and law, and in the methods that inform school desegregation, limits the report’s usefulness when it comes to policy and practice. Moreover, crucial methodological decisions, like how neighborhoods are defined or why metro areas are treated the same as rural ones, either are not fully explained or lack a research-based rationale. This weakness undermines the utility of the newly created database—which the authors view as a vital contribution of the report. In short, Balancing Act represents a missed opportunity to accurately explore the nexus between school and housing segregation.

Document Reviewed:

Balancing Act: Schools, Neighborhoods, and Racial Imbalance

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, Richard V. Reeves, Nathan Joo, & Pete Rodrigue
Brookings Institution