Imagine four children all living within the boundaries of or in proximity to Hidden Heights, a predominately White,
well-resourced school district sitting in a White, well-resourced municipality.
Students in Hidden Heights have access to many resources that characterize educational property, including a curriculum that builds their skills, cultural resources that prepare them for middle-class and affluent social life, and resources derived from well-connected social networks.
In this community and others like it, community members treat education as private property, a scarce resource deserving of protection like other forms of property. Because education is regarded as property, the community will encourage school officials to make it available only to those who deserve it (i.e., pay for it in property taxes and rent) and unavailable to all others without similar entitlements.
Our first child is Amanda, a White, middle-class girl who is typical of what school attendance laws consider a “bona fide resident.”
Amanda lives within the Hidden Heights boundaries with her archetypical family, including two parents, in a house they own.
She is the prototypical student for school attendance; because she is a bona fide resident, the district cannot exclude her from its schools
and may be obliged to protect her educational property by excluding others.
In other words, bona fide residents enjoy the right not to be excluded and the privilege of protection through the exclusion of others.
Our second child is Monica, a girl from a Black, working-class family who lives during the school week with her grandmother.
While her grandmother is a bona fide resident within the Hidden Heights boundaries, Monica may not be, despite her presence in the district on school days. School attendance laws tend to reject living situations like Monica’s as indicative of bona fide residence, partly because most states require that a child’s address for school attendance be that of their parents or guardians, regardless of the child’s actual living situation.
If she is not found to be a bona fide resident, Hidden Heights can exclude her.
Our third child is Malcolm, a Black boy from a low-income family, who lives with his parents right outside the Hidden Heights boundaries in a community not as affluent, or as White, as Hidden Heights. Unlike Amanda and (arguably) Monica, he is not a bona fide resident, and Hidden Heights has no obligation to educate him. But Hidden Heights schools are among the best, and his parents want him to attend its schools. Because they are not residents, their (legitimate) options are few.
His parents’ best option is to have Malcolm participate in an interdistrict transfer program
that breaks the tight connection between school attendance and residence. Available in most states, these programs allow students who do not live inside a district’s boundaries to attend that school district’s schools.
But his continued attendance is conditional and relies on considerations not applicable to resident students including academic and behavioral standards. Unlike bona fide resident children, Malcolm does not enjoy the unconditional right not to be excluded.
Our fourth child is Kyle, a middle-class Black boy with a disability who is a Hidden Heights bona fide resident. Like Amanda, his claim should be the most secure, and in some ways, it is. Before the mid-1970s, Kyle may not have had a right to attend school, even as a bona fide resident.
Today, federal law requires public schools to educate and accommodate children with disabilities.
But like many children with disabilities deemed incompatible with the general education classroom, Kyle spends much of his day in a segregated classroom, away from children who do not live with a disability.
Although every child with a disability is entitled to a free appropriate public education in the district in which they reside, the setting of that education need not be in the general education classroom, but only in the “least restrictive environment.”
As a result, he has little access to the general education curriculum and social experiences with general education students.
Amanda, Monica, Malcolm, and Kyle all have claims to enjoy the Hidden Heights educational property. Still, the bases for their claims, the possibility of success when those claims are challenged, and the overall security of their claims differ.
Amanda’s claim to education is one of unconditional ownership, access, and benefits available to her if she remains a bona fide resident. Monica’s claim to the educational property is more tenuous than Amanda’s, even though she lives in the same area during the days she attends school. Because Monica does not live within the district’s boundaries 24/7, her family must jump through evidentiary hoops Amanda’s family avoids, proving that Hidden Heights is her true “home” to continue to attend school.
While Malcolm has access to the educational property when he receives permission to attend, his continued access as a nonresident is contingent; Hidden Heights decides the conditions under which it accepts nonresident students and can condition continuing attendance on academics and discipline.
Lastly, Kyle should be most secure in non-excludability, as both a bona fide resident and a child with a disability who has a statutory right to be educated in the district in which he resides. But his access to the educational property, the resources contained in the school’s walls, is limited; schools may use his disability label as a justification for his segregation, especially because he is a Black boy.
These children’s experiences, where they all have a legal claim to the educational property amassed in this district, complicate the story about education, property, and access. Legal entitlement or permission to attend school does not mean that one can fully benefit from a district’s educational property. This Essay suggests that the differences in these children’s claims to Hidden Heights educational property are not only about who cannot be excluded and who must be included. Instead, the children’s stories illustrate relational positions in the space of the Hidden Heights school district and the extent to which law, policies, and practices support their claims. The students’ access to educational property rises and falls on whether they “belong.”
A focus on belonging encourages us to see property claims as relational and spatial.
Instead of focusing on the Subject and Object of property (“who” owns “what”), belonging attends to the Space in which property claims are asserted and the organizational and structural practices that support and legitimate, or undermine and delegitimate, those claims. Accessing educational property is not solely about the individual attributes of students making a claim, but also about the law, policies, and practices that define the space and render determinations about whose claims are legitimate—thus deserving of protection—and whose claims are not.
The degree of a child’s belonging depends not only on the legal right to ownership or access but also on the social processes, structures, and networks that support those claims. We can harmonize Amanda’s, Monica’s, Malcolm’s, and Kyle’s seemingly divergent experiences by considering the extent to which the children belong.
Of course, residence plays an essential role in school attendance and access to educational property. Bona fide resident children are the privileged class with the most substantial claim not to be excluded. As argued below, Amanda is the ideal against which all the other children are judged.
This Essay proceeds as follows: Part I describes the conventional test for who gets to access a district’s educational property. That test rises and falls on residency; thus, this Part focuses on Amanda’s and Monica’s disparate experiences in establishing bona fide residency, relating to family form and living arrangements. Part II describes circumstances in which nonresidents like Malcolm and bona fide resident children with disabilities like Kyle overcome exclusion to develop an inclusive right to educational property. Yet they experience that access very differently from prototypical Amanda.
Finally, Part III suggests how focusing on property as belonging complicates the story of education as property with the central characteristic of exclusion. To belong, the students need to show that not only do they (1) have a legal claim but also that (2) they are genuine members of the group that deserves the property and (3) the law, policies, and practices of the space support those claims. To conclude, this Essay suggests that thinking about access to educational property through the lens of belonging is particularly salient in the school context, in which belonging has long been considered critical to student academic and social success.