Educational Gerrymandering + Political Gerrymandering = Even More Extreme Polarization

I just returned home from the Oklahoma Academy 2017 Town Hall, Oklahoma Votes: Improving the Election Process, Voter Access, and Informed Voter Engagement, and my head is spinning about the lessons I learned about the new gerrymandering. Both Democrats and Republicans have long histories of drawing district lines to gain partisan advantage. There is nothing new with politicians trying to select their voters, as opposed to voters picking their representatives. Now, however, sophisticated digital technologies have put gerrymandering on steroids, encouraging even more polarization and dysfunction.

The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed electoral gerrymandering designed to discriminate based on race. It has allowed the drawing of district lines in order to gain partisan advantage. Gerrymandering has become so extreme, however, that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case challenging the partisan Wisconsin legislative map. Justice Anthony Kennedy has complained about the lack of a “‘a workable standard’ to decide when such tactics crossed a constitutional line.” We might now be able to remedy this violation of democratic principles.

Coming back from the town hall, Oklahoma Academy’s urgency made me hopeful, even as I remained depressed about the harm being done by gerrymandering. The drawing of legislative lines in order segregate minority party voters, and to disempower those who are different from the majority party, has created governmental gridlock as it has driven so many minorities and young people out of the system. We’ve all see pictures of the convoluted legislative districts that have such a corrupting effect, but it now looks like Americans have had enough of the tactic of segregating voters for political advantage.

So, I was doubly stunned by Meredith Richards’ “Gerrymandering Educational Opportunity” in Kappanonline.org. Richards and Kori Stroub used geospatial techniques to study the gerrymandering public school attendance zones and their effect on students. They drove their message home by comparing maps of some of the nation’s worse legislative gerrymandering with comparable gerrymandering of schools seeking to select their students.

Often, educational gerrymandering is even more convoluted and more damaging to its victims. In 49 states, voting districts are contiguous, so “someone could travel from any point in the district to any other point in the district without leaving the district. However, most states have no such laws regarding school attendance zones.” Consequently, “attendance zones are considerably more gerrymandered than congressional districts.”

Richards and Stroub conclude:

Gerrymandering educational boundaries generally fosters inequities in access to educational opportunities and worsens already severe levels of racial segregation in public schools.

Richards and Stroub find, “While gerrymandering increases segregation overall, it is particularly severe in districts experiencing rapid increases in racial diversity.”

And the resulting segregation is made even worse by the proliferation of charter schools!

Competition-driven education reform sought to use the segregation fostered by school choice to reverse the educational legacy of Jim Crow segregation!?!? It’s sometimes hard to say what is more destructive – overtly racist educational gerrymandering, such as the extreme cases documented in Kappan - or the trade-off made by choice advocates who join with Betsy DeVos and the Koch brothers to push segregation across the tipping point.

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning." He didn’t call for schools to replace churches as the places that are most segregated.

Our democracy has always been flawed, but it’s hard to believe that we’ve reverted back to the worst of our system of self-government. It’s equally hard to believe that concerned citizens such as those who attended the Oklahoma Academy will not be able to help find solutions to legislative gerrymandering. Its forum participants also called for a return to teaching Civics. We called for holistic, multimedia, multi-disciplinary teaching of history and government, as well as nurturing social skills, or “adulting,” which is what the children of some participants call that form of mentoring.

Reversing educational gerrymandering will be tougher, but it is an urgent task. Our self-segregation breeds polarization, making it easy to dismiss opponents as “the other.” If we can re-integrate our public schools, perhaps we can revitalize our electoral process. Once we raise a generation of diverse children who’ve shared the same classrooms, we can produce voters willing to share legislative districts with people who have very different political opinions.

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