The role of residential segregation in lawsuit over Elgin school district

The Chicago suburb of Elgin has long been a satellite city with more diversity and manufacturing than the average suburb. The city’s school district, U-46, is the second-largest district in the state and is the plaintiff in a long-running civil suit that is continuing in federal court this week:

The two sides in a long, bitter fight over boundary lines in an Elgin-area school district met in federal District Court in Chicago on Monday, six years after a class-action suit sought to improve learning conditions for minority students.

The students and the families who were part of the original case filed in 2005 have long since left School District U-46, a racially and culturally diverse district of 40,000 students in the northwest suburbs. But the conditions that sparked that initial outrage — overcrowding and poor classroom conditions — continue to persist and are putting minority students at a disadvantage, attorney Stewart Weltman told the judge in his opening remarks.

“U-46 served the needs of white students first, and the needs of minority students second,” Weltman told U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman. “The district knew it had thousands of empty seats in white schools, and yet it forced more and more minority students into overcrowded schools and portable classrooms without running water.”

Attorneys for the school district say race never played a role in the redrawing of attendance boundaries for the district’s 55 elementary, middle and high schools. Instead, they say, the changes were part of a reorganization plan by the district in 2004 to allow more students to attend schools closer to home.

I don’t know the particulars of the case. What the district did sounds like what a lot of American parents might desire: let my children go to schools close to home rather than busing or driving them to schools across the city. Closeness is one issue but the idea of local control or rule of nearby schools is important, even in a large school district.

But as I read this, I am struck by an idea: with the district letting students “attend schools closer to home,” U-46 was letting the wealthier kids go to the nearby nicer schools and the minority kids go to nearby worse-off schools. And if you look at the map of the U-46 boundaries, there is quite an economic range, from Elgin (median household income in 2009: $57,009) to wealthier Bartlett (median household income in 2009: $91,863) and Wayne (less than 2,000 people in the village but a 2009 median household income of $142,321). Therefore, it may appear that the district is not spreading the wealth (in money or children) around the district in a way that benefits everyone. The residential segregation patterns in suburbia, where the wealthier tend to live with the wealthier and the poorer live with the poorer, then get reinforced.

It will be interesting to see how the case turns out. On one hand, I’m sure the district has an interest in keeping wealthier families and areas within the district, something that may have been aided by this 2004 decision. On the other hand, the larger school district is supposed to be providing the same opportunities for all students.