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Where are America's most economically segregated schools?

Researchers comparing poverty rates in adjacent school districts expected to find the largest disparities in the South, but only one Southern state made the top 10 list.

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Kevin Casillas Jr., 4, walks through a puddle while holding a sign supporting his father, who is a Detroit Public School teacher, during a May 'sick out,' when teachers called out sick in protest, in Detroit, Mich.

Tanya Moutzalias/AP/File

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School systems in Detroit and its neighbor, Grosse Pointe, Mich., are the most economically disparate adjacent school districts in the country, according to a new report from EdBuild, an educational funding reform nonprofit. 

Looking at every school district in the country, compared with the other districts it borders, "Fault Lines: America's Most Segregating School District Borders," shows that while 49.2 percent of Detroit's school-age residents live in poverty, only 6.5 percent of their peers in neighboring Grosse Pointe live below the poverty line.

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The problem goes beyond segregation itself: given American schools' reliance on local property taxes for funding, such disparate incomes are reflected in disparate opportunities for children in nearby districts. 

"The schools in these districts face tremendous impediments to teaching and learning, and yet because of district borders, low-income students are further deprived of the benefits from the financial and cultural capital of better-off peers that they would encounter in an integrated school," the report says. 

"Fault Lines" illustrates "how school finance systems have led to school segregation along class lines within communities around the country, and how judicial and legislative actions have actually served to strengthen these borders that divide our children and our communities," EdBuild's founder and chief executive, Rebecca Sibilia, told The Detroit News in an email.

The research team looked at all 33,500 borders throughout the country, comparing the poverty rates of school-aged children in neighboring districts. They expected to find the greatest disparity between schools in the South, Ms. Sibelia told NPR, only to find that just one Southern city made it into the 'Top 10' worst-segregated borders: Birmingham, Ala.

In Southern states, Sibelia said, county lines often double as school district lines, creating "less opportunity for intentional segregation." Instead, the researchers found the greatest disparity tended to occur in the country’s manufacturing centers: Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

In the study, the term "segregation" is referring to class separation, not race. The two often overlap, however, creating what some allege is a legal way to essentially continue racial segregation in schools, decades after the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education declared it unconstitutional.

Detroit’s population is 82.7 percent African-American, according to 2010 census data, while the five towns in the Grosse Pointe district range just under 2 percent to about 13 percent African-American – with one notable outlier, Harper Woods, at about 45 percent.

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In 1974, the Supreme Court case Milliken v. Bradley blocked proposals to bus students between districts in hope of achieving more racially integrated schools, ruling that the districts were not responsible for the segregation unless it could be proven to be intentional.

"The court said that the school district as a concept is basically untouchable," Ben Justice, an education historian at Rutgers University's Graduate School of Education, told NPR. "To argue that where people live, particularly by the 1960s, was not the result of racist government policy was simply a lie. Public policy and private industry conspired to create neighborhoods where people could or could not live."

Grosse Pointe Superintendent Gary Niehaus told The Detroit News that the district is working to promote diversity after a video of a racist incident at one of the district's schools went viral.

"Our student body asked for town hall meetings after the second incident and from those conversations, we engaged the University of Michigan and we sent five students from both Grosse Pointe North and South to a summer leadership camp on diversity," Mr. Niehaus told The Detroit News. "It's a year-long program."

This approach may address the racial and classist climate within individual schools, however, it does not address the systemic problem of inequality in school districting and funding.

"We have five decades of research at this point that show that it's a huge advantage for low-income students to attend mixed-income schools and that middle-class students in those schools have high academic performance throughout and their scores aren't harmed," Halley Potter, a fellow at The Century Foundation and co-author of a report on the subject, told The Christian Science Monitor in June.