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Why Public Administration Should Consider Place in Our Understanding of Social Equity: Lessons From School Closures and the Provision of Public Educational Services

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Hannah Lebovits, Amanda Clark and Ashley Nickels
December 15, 2020

When we signed up to write a series of PA Times Online articles over the 2020 calendar year, we had no idea what was in store. Indeed, it was just a week before our first article was due in March when the United States recognized the COVID-19 outbreak as a global pandemic. Today, in our last article of the year, we’ll highlight one element of social equity that remains underdeveloped in public affairs research and practice: the importance of geography and place.

The concept of place is complex and interdisciplinary. When people make physical spaces meaningful, they become places. Geographers agree that a place contains something that attracts social attention, forms of habitation or a sense of identity. The United States includes various levels of place—e.g. states, regions, cities, neighborhoods and institutions. When governmental jurisdiction is layered in, geographic boundaries determine the functional and formal limits of governing in and across place. As a result, the most intimately close places are also often the most limited in capacity. As Paul Peterson explains in City Limits, urban policy efforts are limited in their ability to achieve large social goals because cities and their political actors and agencies are so limited by the functions of their place.

Over the past ten months, public administrators have been on the frontlines of the pandemic response, crafting and implementing policies at various levels of place. However, while different organizations have felt the strain of COVID-19 more acutely than others, sub-state governmental units have been hardest hit as they’ve been relied on as primary first responders. As Maher, Hoang and Hindery found in a recent PAR piece, local nonprofits, city governments and school districts have been the most significantly impacted by the pandemic and will continue to feel these effects for years to come. However, depending on where you live in the United States, your ability as a resident to continue to access a high level of governmental services varies significantly. Place matters! And nowhere is this more clear than in the case of school districts and public education.

Public school districts across the country are funded based on state formulas, which tend to rely heavily on a given district’s property tax value. As Rothstein (2017) points out, areas with larger amounts of property tax funds have better schools than those with fewer property tax dollars. But that is only one part of the education inequity system. In many areas with high-income residents, wealthy parents recreate class systems by giving their children a greater number of opportunities outside of the classroom, in the form of tutors, extracurricular programs and expensive summer camps, Calarco (2011) finds. Additionally, fewer child-related concerns fall on the school. Wealthier parents can supply clothing, food and mental/physical health services without the assistance of the school or teachers. This takes a huge load off of the school staff and faculty, giving them more time to focus on strictly academic efforts and fewer, unpaid outside classroom hours of work. In “normal” times, educational inequities are quite significant and exacerbated by public-private tensions and philanthropic efforts. In a global pandemic, these inequities are even more obvious and harmful.

With the switch to an online provision of educational services in April 2020, many students in poorer school districts immediately fell behind, due both to their personal and familial struggles as well as systemic racism and classism. The digital divide, the growing gap between those who do not have access to and cannot benefit from internet communications technology and those who can, is clearly apparent in the spatial inequities in the provision of public education. Digital access is costly and school districts with a higher number of poorer students have fewer students with personal computers at home. And even if families had several devices, many poor neighborhoods have been, “Digitally redlined,” and cannot access high-speed, high-quality low-cost internet services. Moreover, as many of these students live in multi-generational households, even when they have the option of returning to school they may not, out of fear that they may expose a loved one to COVID-19. As a result, service provision has been incredibly stunted and students in these areas have not been able to even access their materials at levels comparable to other neighborhoods.

Both the normal and COVID-related inequities in the provision of educational services highlight the significance of the geographic unit in our conversations related to social equity. While neighborhoods do tend to be segregated, a focus on race and income are not enough to fully understand the equity landscapes sub-state governmental agencies must manage. We need to consider where we live and how we experience these places—not just who lives there.

Place matters in politics and public affairs, as Dreier, Mollenkopf, and Swanstrom (2011) note. Your zip code effectively determines your access to goods, resources and opportunities. As scholars of public administration and urban studies, we encourage our colleagues to take the opportunity now to layer in an understanding of place in our conversations about social equity.


Hannah Lebovits, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at University of Texas-Arlington. She studies the relationship between governance, spatial structures and social equity. @HannahLebovits

Amanda D. Clark, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of political science at Nova Southeastern University. She is currently researching social movements, election administration, and the U.S. policy process. @adclark_phd

Ashley E. Nickels, Ph.D., is associate professor of political science at Kent State University and co-PI of the Growing Democracy Project. Her work focuses on urban politics, local governance, and community using a social equity lens. @AENickelsPhD

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