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School Redistricting Debates Modeled Through Game Theory

School redistricting is a nationally widespread event that not only impacts education, but also other aspects of a neighborhood. Traffic and business are greatly affected by school boundaries, as they determine the commutes that cars and buses will take every day. If the commutes are too long or pass through dangerous intersections, this can become an environmental and safety issue. Racial and economic demographics of each school boundary must be considered in order to combat inequality. Additionally, the assigned school plays a factor in house values, as neighborhoods with shorter commutes and higher quality education are desirable. Students living in the affected areas would have to transfer to a new school, causing stress for both student and their family. There are always trade-offs that have to be made in order to attain districts that both the region’s families and the school district board can agree to. As one can imagine, redistricting discussions become heated and can last for over a year. Modeling school redistricting through game theory reveals that the perceived likelihood of retaliation from the community (whether it be legal, economic, or some other form) plays a large factor in who gets the upper hand in these debates.

I modeled a redistricting situation similar to one that occurred in my neighborhood last year.

The left image represents the high school boundary proposal by my school district’s Board Advisory Committee, while the image on the right represents the modified proposal that was ultimately approved. The need for redistricting arose since a new high school was built elsewhere in the district, and enrollment numbers needed to be redistributed. I live in the one neighborhood whose proposal was changed from the pink school boundary to the blue boundary during the process. Both my neighborhood and the area directly south (around Elmonica ES) were originally in the pink district. The pink high school is generally considered to be more prepared, both economically and academically. The two areas in consideration are both physically closer to the pink school, but were proposed to be changed to the blue boundary in order to balance enrollment numbers.

Assuming that most families of a neighborhood have the same preference for which school their children attend, this situation can be modeled by treating the school district board and the neighborhood as players. The school district board aims to achieve criteria such as optimizing bus routes, balancing enrollment (both in number and in socio-economic diversity), promoting equality, and minimizing transitions for students. Meanwhile, neighborhoods generally aim to secure a high quality education for their children, maintain or increase their house values, and minimize commute times.

This tree represents the options that each player (district board and neighborhood) have at each stage of the discussion. First, the board submits its initial proposal for the neighborhood. If they suggest pink, the preferred school of the neighborhood, there is no more need for discussion (result e). If they suggest blue, the neighborhood will be put in the blue boundary (result a) unless neighborhood representatives protest, whether it be through speeches at the public board meetings, emails to the school district superintendent, or some other form of activism. The board can then either modify their proposal to keep the neighborhood within pink boundaries (result b), or rebut the neighborhood’s argument and go through with the original proposal to move them within blue boundaries. Now, at this point there is little a neighborhood can do but continue protesting, but very rarely there are groups that sue their school district. For example, one might claim a lack of transparency during the redistricting process or racial inequality.

In solving this tree, the crucial step is to determine whether accepting or rejecting community feedback is more beneficial to the district board. The district board would like to avoid a lawsuit, even if it ends in their favor. If they determine a lawsuit unlikely, they can ignore the suit and end with result d, where their agenda is achieved. If the risk of a lawsuit it too high, however, they may have to give in to the neighborhood’s desires (result b). If the neighborhood thinks to have more leverage than they actually do, or if the district board ignores the risk of a lawsuit, then the neighborhood will sue (result c). Lawsuits are generally not fun for either side.

 Situation Expected Result  Explanation
 The board’s initial proposal both achieves the board agenda and is favorable to the neighborhood.  e  Both the board and the neighborhood are happy. This is the ideal (Pareto-optimal) result.
 The board’s preferred boundaries clash with those of the neighborhood. The debate is likely to escalate to legal action.  b  The board makes their proposal, which is met with protest. The district board gives in to the neighborhood, as a moderate setback to their agenda is preferable to facing legal action.
 The board’s preferred boundaries clash with those of the neighborhood. The neighborhood lacks leverage for legal action.  d  The board makes their proposal, which is met with protest (the neighborhood does accept the proposal, as there is still the chance that the board misjudges the chance of a lawsuit and gives in to their protest). The board ignores the protests, and the neighborhood is unable to retaliate.

Here, we can see that the board’s perception of the likelihood of retaliation is crucial to the result of the debates. Even if a neighborhood lacks leverage for legal action, they can still threaten legal action in hopes that the board will misjudge the legal risk and give in. Wealthy neighborhoods or neighborhoods with influential individuals are probably more successful at this threat tactic. Though my neighborhood did not publicly employ such threats, they did significantly increase pressure on the board at meetings, citing the long transit from my neighborhood to the blue school. If it can be shown that the proposed map fails to meet the school district’s own agenda, the district board will have no choice but to amend their proposal.

To counteract this strategy, a school district board should attempt to minimize the issues that a neighborhood might try to use as leverage in a legal battle. This means that there should be a good-faith effort to ensure transparency of the redistricting process and combat inequality. Additionally, the board should try to explain their agenda and reasoning behind their initial proposed map. If the math is sound enough, community members without any leverage in discussion may accept the initial proposal as necessary for the greater good, even if it is disadvantageous for them individually. Further, the district board can prevent the debate entirely if they make rigorous efforts to ensure that a good quality education can be received at any school, rather than having certain schools clearly preferable to others.

In conclusion, school redistricting debates revolve around the board’s perceived risk of retaliation from the community. Members of affected neighborhoods should attend redistricting meetings. This is not only beneficial to them strategy-wise, but the peer-review that occurs in an effort to sway the district board may result in review of district agenda beneficial to the community as a whole. The district board should make good-faith efforts to provide equality in education quality between schools and demographics, as well act transparently during the process. These efforts would minimize the risk of a lawsuit and make it easier for district agenda to be achieved. Though school redistricting involved numerous neighborhoods and trade-offs between criteria, so debates are bound to get heated. However, through the efforts of both the neighborhood representatives and the district board, lawsuits can be avoided and the community should end up better as a whole.

If you have any personal stories of school redistricting debates, please share them in the comments!

Some further reading/examples of school redistricting:

Some details of the conclusion of my school district’s boundary discussion

An explanation of school redistricting in general, as well as information about the Iowa City Community School District redistricting process

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