This post is written by Andrene J. Castro & Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, each professors in the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University. Along with Kimberly Bridges, Shenita E. Williams, and Mitchell Perry, they’ve been engaged in a larger project researching school rezoning across Virginia between 2019 and 2021. The summary below offers key findings from two recently published peer-reviewed studies, shedding insight into contemporary white resistance to school integration and strategies for a more inclusive public debate.
Over the past several decades, many school districts have experienced rapid demographic shifts and population growth alongside rising racial and socioeconomic imbalance across schools. When school boards draw and redraw attendance boundaries within districts to address these concerns, the process is referred to as school rezoning or redistricting. School systems around the country, including those in Washington D.C., New York City, and Howard Co., Maryland, recently have engaged in major rezoning efforts that seek to balance racial and/or socioeconomic composition, over or under enrollment, and the need to build new schools.
Many studies show that a key driver of school segregation are the attendance boundaries dividing students into schools within districts. With approximately 85% of public-school children attending their local neighborhood public school, there is a strong relationship between residential and school segregation. And in the aftermath of Parents Involved, a Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the use of an individual students’ race/ethnicity in student assignment, rezoning schools based on the racial/ethnic makeup of neighborhoods remains, for now, one of few race-conscious policies for addressing racial and economic segregation in schools.
However, despite that many school districts regularly rezone attendance boundaries, studies on school rezoning have been thin. Specifically, rezoning studies have largely overlooked school stakeholders (e.g., superintendents and school board members) or community members as central figures meditating and facilitating the rezoning process and the values they hold. Additionally, we know little about the process itself. For example, in what ways can school leaders identify strategies for engaging the public, anticipate concerns, and incorporate frameworks for authentic and constructive dialogue?
We conducted in-depth qualitative examinations of school rezoning across two Virginia school districts—Richmond Public Schools (RPS) and Henrico County Public Schools (HCPS). One study included a critical examination of 3,339 public comments across the two districts’ rezoning processes; the other involved semi-structured interviews with 15 school leaders and community stakeholders. Together, this work highlights ways redrawing attendance boundaries can exacerbate or ameliorate racial and economic segregation in schools.
In the first study, “‘All Schools Are Not Created Equal:’ An Analysis of Public Comments on School Rezoning,” we apply a framework that blends critical discourse and critical policy analysis to explore public comments collected from the two districts. Critical discourse analysis (CDA)—views discourse as text, discursive practice, and social practice by considering language use, the relationship between text and context, and how language and texts exert influence on people’s beliefs, knowledge, or identities. Specifically, it allowed us to examine underlying questions of public values. We also drew on critical policy analysis (CPA), which amplifies policies as texts of production, representation, and consumption to consider power differentials, inequality, and distribution of resources—each of which are critical concerns nested in how the public articulates individual and collective values when responding to or implementing policy.
In the second study, “Narratives of Race in School Rezoning: How the Politics of Whiteness Shape Belonging, Leadership Decisions, and School Attendance Boundaries,” we explored race/racism and whiteness as an important subtext to the rezoning political process. Given Richmond’s complicated history as a southern city with a large Black population experiencing demographic change, population growth, and gentrification, we used a conceptual framework of racial narratives to explore dominant and counter-dominant narratives of the policy process. Previous studies show that white and affluent families are central actors in school boundary and rezoning efforts, often seeking to influence the process to their advantage; therefore, the racial narratives framework incorporated a critical interrogation of whiteness and white racial attitudes.
Across both studies, we identified salient themes related to racial narratives, conceptualizations of race, and the subtlety of racial power dynamics in districts’ rezoning process. In RPS, for example, stakeholders viewed school rezoning as a historically embedded process contained within school desegregation and “massive resistance,” and more contemporaneously, a prior 2013 school rezoning effort that increased segregation. While in Henrico, commenters conceptualized diversity based on rezoning goals around efficiency, utilizing new school buildings, and reducing concentrations of poverty.
Although we identified some support for rezoning in both districts, the majority of public comments and stakeholders’ recollection of public opinion largely opposed rezoning, despite the different contexts and histories. For example, in RPS, two rezoning options included pairing schools close in proximity. Pairing is a rezoning strategy that encompasses multiple neighborhoods previously associated with at least two schools to yield a single, more diverse attendance zone. It sought to ameliorate hypersegregation in three RPS elementary schools, which enrolled 895 of 1252, or about 70% of all white RPS elementary students (the average RPS elementary school enrolled 52 white students). But, we found heavy use of racial discursive strategies to oppose pairing. In fact, one RPS participant recalled that white community members against pairing often prefaced their opposition by saying, “I am for integrated schools…but I’m not for integration in this way.” Rather than rezone, some residents leaned on the rallying cry to “save neighborhood schools” as the preferred strategy—ignoring ways the phrase was similarly deployed in opposition to desegregation.
We also observed the concept of opportunity hoarding, or, in this case, boundary maintenance at play. Both ideas—opportunity hoarding and boundary maintenance—illustrate ways advantaged groups seek to retain their status by limiting others’ access to crucial resources. Given the literal and figurative emphasis on boundaries as a process of social stratification in both studies, boundary maintenance was particularly evident in more restrictive or exclusive mid-to-upper class neighborhoods or those with fewer low-income families as commenters emphasized concerns about walkability, safety, and disrupted networks or resources. In fact, concerns from white and mid-upper families dominated rezoning narratives and public comments. White voices and concerns were elevated through informal channels like living room chats and school-based meetings hosted by white rezoning committee members or by formal channels like committee board appointments. This kind of outsized white overrepresentation undermined attempts to gather responses from underrepresented groups, especially among Latinx community members in Richmond and communities of color in Henrico’s east side. Ultimately, this overrepresentation contributed to uneven public engagement as white residents leveraged their power and influence throughout the rezoning process.
Overall, findings illustrate that public values are bound up in race and class politics and shape discourses of resistance. These discourses reveal conflicting values regarding race and diversity, conceptualizations of place and space, and ways commenters exercised power—as forms of boundary maintenance—to hoard or exclude educational opportunity.
By highlighting the racial politics of rezoning, the two studies show that school rezoning is a “socially messy” and “politically painful” process. How stakeholders understand race and whiteness—with regard to rezoning-related history, resistance to school desegregation, and past and present racial dialogue—thoroughly shapes, and is shaped by, the political and public engagement dimensions of school rezoning. Given the different values used to justify public support for or resistance to policy change, findings challenge conventional public engagement pathways (e.g., public meetings or surveys) that amplify dominant voices, while diminishing those of marginalized community members. For example, there are clear benefits and drawbacks of written public comments—as a practice of public and democratic engagement—but it is incumbent upon school board and district leaders to prioritize input from underrepresented communities and youth, attend to the hypervisibility of white community members, or correct racialized discourses in real-time.
At the same time, lack of clarity around diversity goals in both districts’ processes minimized opportunities to adopt clear priorities in rezoning criteria with specific and measurable integration criteria. Doing so will enable communities to accurately assess various rezoning options and the value districts assign to these criteria.
 Richmond Public Schools (RPS) is an urban, city school district located in Richmond, Virginia and Henrico County Public Schools (HCPS) is a large suburban district adjacent to the City of Richmond’s west, north and east sides. The written public comments were collected from multiple avenues (i.e., public meetings, online surveys, or emails) and across different timepoints or phases in both districts. Districts were selected based on several criteria including: current engagement with rezoning process (largely at the same time), districts’ suburban and urban contexts, and researchers’ proximity to districts. Additionally, both districts used the same technical consultant, but designed their rezoning process using different criteria and engagement strategies. These circumstances presented unique conditions for a comparative case study.