McKinney ISD’s practice of attendance zoning based on socioeconomic status—which includes income and other social factors—has been a topic of discussion for residents and school board candidates since the May 6 election.
The practice of zoning for SES diversity, often called “forced busing” by its critics, results in some middle and high school students being bused to a school that might not be the closest one to their home.
MISD started the practice with its middle schools in 1995 and its high schools in 2004, and is one of five school districts in Texas to use SES diversity factors in attendance zones or other district policies.
MISD officials have proposed a $900,000 increase to the 2017-18 transportation budget over the $8.5 million 2016-17 transportation budget, and some parents argue that geographic zoning, compared to zoning for SES diversity, would result in cost savings.
However, Cody Cunningham, chief communications and support services officer at MISD, said any potential savings would most likely have to be reallocated “to meet the needs of schools with a majority of low socioeconomic students, so the potential savings from zoning purely geographic would likely be erased by added staff and resources.”
Cunningham said while SES diversity is a factor in attendance zones, the district also places significant value on geography—as evidenced by the fact that schools are not perfectly balanced by SES diversity.
“What we’re trying to do is to avoid having a school that’s say 90 percent economically disadvantaged and then have another school where you might have 5 or 10 percent economically disadvantaged students,” he said.
Why SES attendance zoning?
Low-income students do better academically when surrounded by a critical mass of middle-class students than they do in high-poverty schools, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank that studies socioeconomic zoning, among other topics.
He said the academic achievement of middle-class students does not decline in schools with a mix of socioeconomic statuses.
“In terms of research on the issue, it’s clear that the academic benefits and the social benefits of being in a diverse environment far outweigh the inconvenience and the expense in transportation,” said Kahlenberg, who has studied this topic for 21 years.
The only way to see if the same goal would be accomplished through geographic zoning is to scratch the current zoning, something Cunningham said the current district administration and board of trustees are not prepared to do.
A hypothetical scenario on the number of bus routes and costs if the district was zoned strictly based on geography has not been created, Cunningham said in an email.
Sheilla Picon, an MISD parent, said her daughter is bused from the east side of town to Dowell Middle School. Picon said she understands why MISD buses students to create diversity, but she does not like that her daughter has to wake up earlier to bus across town.
Picon said Dowell is a great school, but she wishes some students could be bused from the east side to the west side and not always from west to east.
When it all began
MISD considered socioeconomic zoning when the district planned to open its second middle school—Dowell Middle School.
McKinney is a “pioneer of sorts” when it comes to considering SES in attendance zoning, Kahlenberg said.
“The earliest efforts to consciously integrate by socioeconomic status goes back to La Crosse, Wisconsin,” he said. “In the late 1970s they rezoned their two high schools for economic balance, and that was quite successful.”
Communities are often designed by economic status, race and ethnicity, Kahlenberg said. In McKinney, US 75 is a natural dividing line, Cunningham said, with lower-income families on the east side and higher-income families on the west side of town.
“So if we were to go based off a pure neighborhood school concept when they opened the second middle school, you really would have created a situation of the haves and the have-nots,” said Geoff Sanderson, MISD chief program evaluation officer.
The majority of elementary schools in MISD are geographically zoned rather than zoned by SES because there are more elementary schools spread across the city, Sanderson said.
However, a neighborhood at the northeast corner of US 380 and Hardin Boulevard is zoned for Minshew Elementary School, although it sits near Vega Elementary School, which is at or near capacity, Cunningham said.
This neighborhood was originally zoned for Minshew before McClure Elementary School opened. Since the distance from the neighborhood to either school is relatively equal, the district wanted to “minimize disruptions” by keeping the area zoned for Minshew, Cunningham said.
The other exception is Woodside Village Apartments. The apartments and surrounding area are zoned for Press Elementary School because this area of town is densely populated, he said.
“When you start looking at the middle schools and high schools, you do create disproportionality if you don’t come up with alternate ways in which to move some of our kids around,” Sanderson said.
SES across Texas
MISD and four other Texas school districts join the 100 districts or charter schools across the U.S. with some type of student assignment plan that considers SES, according to the Century Foundation.
The other schools that participate in this type of zoning in Texas are Allen ISD, Beaumont ISD, Dallas ISD and Ector County ISD. However, MISD is the only district to use SES as one of the top factors in drawing attendance zones.
SES and a student’s background is the “No. 1 predictor of student success,” Cunningham said. If one school had all low SES students, he said it would be harder to recruit and retain good teachers, which would further create the divide between have and have-not schools.
“If you look at the academic achievement, the attendance rate, the graduation rate [and] the parent participation involvement rate at all of our schools, you’ll see that they’re pretty similar,” he said. “I don’t think it would be the case if you zone