The Law of School Catchment Areas

50 Pages Posted: 21 Jun 2019 Last revised: 23 Jun 2019

Date Written: June 15, 2019


The established account of American school desegregation is one of triumph, and then tragedy. According to this narrative, court-ordered desegregation peaked in the late 1960's, only to suffer legal defeats and social backlash with the result that today, public schools across the nation have re-segregated to levels not seen since before Brown vs. Board of Education. This story needs an update, however, as Americans today are increasingly concentrated in dense metropolitan areas, in many instances reversing the phenomenon of "white flight" - and yet, school segregation persists. This paper argues that understanding the law and policy of school attendance zones, or "catchment areas," in the parlance of local government law, is crucial to explaining this paradox. While legal and economics scholars have assessed the drawing of school district lines, and others have examined the education policy effects of school catchment areas, this paper’s unique contribution is in describing and assessing the legal and theoretical underpinnings of school catchment areas. First, I will use three large urban school districts - those in New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco - as case studies to analyze the use of catchment areas for school assignments. Next, I will examine the conceptual justifications for using school catchment areas in the context of local government theory. Finally, I will evaluate potential reforms for catchment areas that would decrease racial segregation. In sum, this paper will argue that reliance on school catchment areas for student assignment is a persistent yet unjustified public policy choice.

Keywords: education, segregation, desegregation, local government, schools

Suggested Citation

Brill, Sam, The Law of School Catchment Areas (June 15, 2019). Stanford Law & Policy Review, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2019, Available at SSRN:

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