Unpacking Income Disparities Between Two Colorado School Districts

Sep 1, 2016

Two Denver area school districts are in the national spotlight, but not for a good reason. The divide between the districts of Littleton and Sheridan has been held up as an example of one of the most segregating boundaries in the nation. But a report neglects to factor a few Colorado-specific quirks.

The education nonprofit EdBuild ranks income disparities between neighboring districts around the country in “Fault Lines.” The Littleton/Sheridan border is comes in ninth. Littleton is economically well-off, with higher home values and a poverty rate of less than 10 percent. The district dwarfs its neighbor Sheridan, which spends roughly $1,400 less per pupil. About 90 percent of Sheridan’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a measure of poverty among K-12 students.

The report, which relies on U.S. Census data, does not factor Colorado’s Open Enrollment Law, a school choice measure that allows parents to send their child to any district so long as there’s room and transportation. So students in Sheridan - which has a nearly 50 percent poverty level - aren’t required to go to school within the district.

That doesn’t mean school the “Fault Lines” report got it wrong. A report by the National Education Policy Center published earlier this year found that Colorado’s school choice program may increase segregation. According to the National Equity Atlas, 72 percent of non-white students in Colorado are enrolled in high-poverty schools, compared to just 18 percent of white students. Chalkbeat reported last fall that despite decades of efforts to remedy school segregation, Denver Public Schools are now more segregated than they were in the 1970s. At that time, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the DPS school board had violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution by willfully segregating school districts.

Another factor unaccounted for in EdBuild’s report: Colorado’s school funding formula, which carves out more money for high-poverty districts. Title I allocates money for academic support programs to districts that have high poverty rates according to U.S. Census data. However, last year, Colorado ranked 43rd in the country when it comes to per-pupil spending.