“Shopping for Schools” and the Perpetuation of Racial Segregation in Schools

By: Julie Zhu

Executive Summary

Segregation in the American education system continues to pose issues for our country, but in particular for students who are currently studying in American schools. Although housing policy and transportation policy has been cited and studied as contributors to the segregation, education policy and the real-estate market has had less of a spotlight. This essay attempts to explain how the individual choices which led to suburbanization, “white-flight” and “shopping for schools” has contributed to the persisting racial segregation of the American education system. I evaluate the failure of busing as a method of desegregation and propose the method of building magnet schools in urban areas as the better solution.


Segregation in schools and society has been a problem in the United States since the founding of our country and continuing to today, despite the civil rights movement and Brown v. Board. In current day, the American education system continues to experiences racial and class segregation. However, rather than laws or policies that explicitly dictate all-white and all-black schools, there is a “color-blind rhetoric of individual merit,” that does not consider the unequal and unjust system that inherently advantages some of these very individuals while disadvantages others (Dougherty, 2012, p. 207). An example of this rhetoric was spoken by, William Bradford Reynolds, President Reagan’s Assistant Attorney General for civil rights, who said, “Each one of us is promised the right to be judged on the basis of individual talent and worth, not the color of one’s skin.” (Morrison, 1993, p. 315)A consequence of this color-blind and merit mentality is the mentality that, given the resources, a family should be able to “buy access into” better school districts for their own children (Dougherty, 2012, p. 220). In other words, it leads to the phenomenon of “shopping for schools” which perpetuates racial segregation in public schools (Dougherty, 2012, p. 207).

The issue of segregation continues to be problematic in metropolitan areas in particular because the phenomenon of suburbanization and pro-suburban ideology has created great inequality in terms of access to quality education. I argue in this paper that, although housing and transportation policy has contributed to this segregation, education policy and real-estate in this era of suburbanization has also had an important influence in the perpetuation of segregation of schools in the United States. Furthermore, I discuss one past solution, busing across district lines, that I argue has failed to rectify segregation in schools. Last, I propose an initial solution to this problem: building magnet schools in urban areas and replacing the members metropolitan land-use committees with people who do not have a conflict of interest.

Persisting Problem: Continued Segregation in Schools

Segregation in Schools Due to Housing and Transportation Policy – Favoring Suburban Homes

Most scholars attribute the segregation that still exists in the American education system to a be a product of federal housing and transportation policy. The advent of federally subsidized home mortgages and highways, in particular, allowed white middle-class families to move away from urban areas (Dougherty, 2012, p. 206). Dougherty, and other scholars, argues this was motivated by a desire for “social mobility and racial avoidance.” (2012, p. 206) However, what many of these analyses miss is the role of education policy and marketing in also perpetuating segregation, in particular the growing concept of buying into a school district and “shopping for schools” that became popular in the late 1950s to early 1960s (Dougherty, 2012, p. 205).

Segregation in Schools due to Education Policy –  Favoring Suburban Locations

Some scholars have recently begun looking at education policies and guidelines that also contributed to segregation in American schools. Ansley Erickson, a professor at Columbia University –Teacher’s College, studied the spatial organization of schools in Nashville, TN, and her research reveals that “city planners and school construction practices [often]…favored segregated white suburban spaces” for the construction of new schools (Erickson, 2012, p. 250). For example, the Metropolitan Planning Commission and the Metropolitan Public Schools “surveyed the school system and projected future need” in 1963 when the city of Nashville and the surrounding area consolidated governments to create one metropolitan municipality. Their report, Schools for 1980, advised that “areas with objectionable features [such] as dust, noise, odors, smoke, congested traffic, busy highways and railroads should be avoided as site locations,” as “these nuisances destroy the proper environment for teaching and learning.” (Erickson, 2012, p. 253) In a another report made in 1970 about a school construction policy, the authors noted in particular that “locating schools in areas zoned for commercial or apartment use should be avoided whenever possible.” (Erickson, 2012, p. 254) This illustrates how the planning commission and the public schools were implicitly, and sometimes rather explicitly, favoring suburban areas over urban areas for school locations.

Another example of the pro-suburban education policy in Nashville was the minimize campus size requirements set by the Nashville Metropolitan Planning Committee and Board of Education in 1964 in Schools for 1980, which required “at least ten acres for an average elementary school and more than thirty for an average high school, with an acre covering roughly the area of a football field.” (Erickson, 2012, p. 254) These new size requirements necessitated new school construction occur in suburban areas because this kind of space was not feasible or affordable in the city of Nashville.

This pro-suburban ideology led many metropolitan governments to allocate more funds to suburban schools, often at the cost of urban schools who went without necessary renovations or were even closed. For example, Erickson shows us that in the metropolitan area of Nashville-Davidson County, between 1971 and 1980, over ten urban schools were shut down, while in the decade before, over ten schools were constructed in the suburbs surrounding the city.

Figure 1A + 1B[1] (Erickson, 2012, p. 252)

Segregation due to Shopping for Schools Phenomenon

“Shopping for schools,” as referred to here, is the phenomenon in which families with enough financial and social resources tend to move to areas with better local school districts for the sake of the children’s education. Having enough financial resources means that the family is able to afford a more expensive house and lifestyle in, usually, a suburban area. Social resources referred to social status, which in this case is largely determined by an intersection of class and race. Dougherty explains that there were cases in the 1950s when real-estate agents would refuse to sell a house to a middle-class black family because they were convinced that a black family moving in would deflate housing prices (Dougherty, 2012, p. 215). Lastly, better local school districts generally means having high test-scores and high school ratings according to pro-suburban standards often set by outsider consultants (Erickson, 2012, p. 259). The way “better” has been conceived of already advantages suburban schools and disadvantages urban ones. Because suburban areas are more expensive to live in, a greater proportion of middle-class and upper-class families attend suburban schools which tends to raise test scores. Low-income students in urban areas tend to test relatively poorly compared to their more affluent peers. Furthermore, the standards set to evaluate these schools are skewed to rate suburban schools more highly. For example, Nashville commissioned a report in 1971 called “Building and School Improvement Study” (BASIS) which put forth standards that evaluated school based on the “age” and “condition” of the surrounding neighborhood. This means a modern school set in an poor neighborhood would be marked down, suggesting “there could be no excellent school in a poor neighborhood.”(Erickson, 2012, p. 259) Therefore, “shopping for schools” phenomenon is evidence of a strong pro-suburban ideology that not only permeated government action and policies, but also individual families and individual people who wanted to move to the suburbs for better schools.

So where did this ideology come from? It is not necessarily supported by rigorous social science research that proves living and learning in suburban-like places is in any way better than living and learning in urban-like areas. Rather, Erickson, Dougherty and other scholars argue that the pro-suburban ideology in this phenomenon of choosing schools was largely promulgated by the interactions between real-estate agents and individual, predominantly-white, families, during the era of post-WWII suburbanization (Benjamin, 2012; Boustan, 2007; Dougherty, 2012; Erickson, 2012). During the late 1960s and 1970s, real estate agents would market houses in a certain area as included in a certain “brand name” school district, which would give it much more value (Dougherty, 2012, p. 210). The chart below illustrates the uptick in residential advertisements that mentioned a specific school name during the era of post-WWII suburbanization during the 1960s and 1970s.

Figure 2. Percentage of West Hartford home advertisements mentioning a specific school, 1920-1990. (Dougherty, 2012, p. 213).

And this added-value in homes within certain school districts was afforded by the families clamoring to send their children to the “best” schools.

Furthermore, Erickson notes that these pro-suburban guidelines for school location became more popular when the development of suburbs was beginning to flourish. These guidelines were promulgated by commissions who were staffed by people who all had a stake in the real estate industry (Erickson, 2012, p. 251). Therefore, the building of schools in suburbs served the “local real-estate interests” which really meant it served the interests of those on the planning commissions. Therefore, the marketing of these schools in the private housing industry became a very important component of attracting white upper-middle-class families to the suburbs, exacerbating and continuing the issue of segregation in the public school system.

The reason why marketing schools in this way is such a successful method of attracting white, middle-class families is because of the “growing importance of educational attainment” in terms of the labor market and for upward social mobility (Dougherty, 2012, p. 220; Scherger & Savage, 2010). There is a growing body of research that shows social mobility processes, “whether across generations or in the course of one work-life, are strongly determined by educational attainment.” (Allmendinger, 1989, p. 231) Allmendinger, also reveals in her research that “individual choices about schooling are significantly shaped and constrained by the opportunities the environment offers.” (Allmendinger, 1989, p. 231)

In addition, in the late 1960s real estate agents have continued to played upon the racial avoidance of white families through block-busting tactics to make more money for themselves. Block-busting in this case is the practice of purposefully selling a house to a Black family in an all-white community and then pressure the white families to sell their properties at a price below market value “in order to ‘get out’ before more blacks moved in and their home values dropped even further.”  (Dougherty, 2012, p. 216)These real-estate marketing tactics facilitated white flight and continuously segregated schools and unequal access to quality schools.

Failed Solution: Busing

One solution that many metropolitan areas resorted to in the face of continued segregation was assigning and busing students to schools outside their district in order to gain greater racial diversity in each school (Felice, 1975; Pride & Woodward, 1995). One such location was the metropolitan area of Nashville, which I have discussed previously. In 1971, Nashville’s U.S. District Court’s Judge Morton, mandated that busing would be required (Erickson, 2012, p. 259). The officials of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) strove for “each school to have approximately 15 to 35 percent black students,” which was generally achieved through clustering a few schools together and reassigning by grade-level. However, in most cases, HEW officials had to group “two or more noncontiguous areas” together and then reassign students in order to achieve the 15-35% black student proportion (Erickson, 2012, p. 260). After the system was implemented in 1971, there were two main unintended consequences that became its fatal flaw.

Fatal Flaws

One fatal flaw in the system was that the burden of busing fell disproportionately on the “shoulders of black urban students.” (Erickson, 2012, p. 260) The burden was more than just “mere inconveniences.” (Erickson, 2012, p. 261) Parents of students who were bussed out of the local district often had difficulties “communicating with and traveling to school, especially if they did not own a car.” These students also often could not participate in the extracurricular activities at their school, and some also received “harsh treatment” from teachers and other students, “lower expectations” in academics, and “alienation.” (Erickson, 2012, p. 261) Then even persevering through all of these burdens, the achievement gap persisted and segregation in schools continued to be an issue.

The second fatal flaw was that busing led real-estate agents to re-segment the area to separate the residences that fell inside the busing zones and outside the busing zones. Thus, after the busing mandate in Nashville, real estate agents began marketing residences in a way similar to their marketing of residents at the beginning of the suburbanization era, but this time segmenting the areas affected by bussing and racial quotas and not affected by bussing. One such advertisement boasted, “no bussing here.” (Erickson, 2012, p. 261)

In addition, Erickson noted that the farther away the the school districts, the less affected the property values were by presence of black students in the schools. Erickson argues it is the long distance from the city that “made the presence of black students in its schools less likely to imply racial transition in property as well.” (Erickson, 2012, p. 262)  The implication here was that a transition in the racial demographics of the residential area would devalue the community and property values because at the time black families were seen as having a lower social status. In West Hartford, “Superintendent Thorne blamed real estate agents for creating…“social class consciousness” among…residents.”(Dougherty, 2012, p. 212) This second fatal flaw became fatal because bussing never addressed this underlying issue of social class consciousness.

Proposed Solution

I argue that the best next steps are three-fold: first, to build and fund magnet schools in urban centers; second to replace pro-suburban standards for evaluating schools with standards for quality schools based on scientific research; and third, replacing members of the metropolitan planning committees and commissions with qualified professionals without a conflict of interest in real-estate.

Building and funding magnet schools in cities would create a pull-factor for white, middle class families to move to the city. Since around 1975, magnet schools have been used as “a method of desegregation.” (Goldring & Smrekar, 2002, p. 13) And although magnet schools have their issues, such as a lack of integration within the school, they have been a powerful and effective tool in moving towards desegregation (Rossell, 1985; West, 1994). However, scholars are far from fully understanding how magnet schools facilitate desegregation, and further research is necessary.

Replacing the politicized pro-suburban standards for evaluating schools with standards based on reliable research will also help give a more objective evaluation of the quality of schools, rather than skewing scores in favor of suburban schools for no reason besides benefitting those with stakes in the real-estate industry. It is important to note that further research on what characteristics facilitate effective learning is also needed.

Last, replacing members of the metropolitan planning committees and commissions with members without a conflict of interest in real-estate allows for the above two reforms to be politically viable.


At the core of the issue, there are still the individual agents and families who choose to move. However, it is important to identify the larger forces which encourage and perpetuate these individual choices which create the continued system of segregation in schools around the country. I argue an important part of this dynamic is how education policy and the real-estate marketing greatly influences the choices of these individuals. Furthermore, busing as a solution to promote desegregation has failed because of the pro-suburban ideology that permeates education policy, real-estate marketing, and also the choices of white, middle-class families. Therefore, I support using magnet schools in urban areas to rectify segregation in these metropolitan areas.


Thank you to my dear friends and classmates, Alison Levosky, Stephanie Addenbrook, and Brian Pok, for providing emotional and intellectual support throughout this project and this semester. Thank you to Alison Levoksy and Jaclyn Price for their insightful and helpful edits. Thank you to Professor Mira Debs for educating us about education!


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[1] Sources: MPC, Schools for 1980; School Directory, MNPS, 1979-1980; City of Nashville Public Schools Directory,1960-1961;“Pupil Enrollment,” 1969,Kelley,Box 11,File 4;“FifteenYearAnalysis of Enrollment Trends, Metro Nashville Public Schools,” 1984, Kelley, Box 21, File 1984; and John Egerton,“Analysis of Data From Interrogatories Submitted to Metropolitan School System,” 1970, Kelley, Box 11, File 4, (1 of 2). 1970 population figures are from the 1970 Decennial Census, available from Minnesota Population Center. National Historical Geographic Information System: Pre-release Version 0.1. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota 2004, at http://www.nhgis.org. I am indebted to the staff of Columbia University’s Electronic Data Service (now Digital Social Science Center) for extensive assistance with GIS.