By Lauren Camera
May 5, 2017
Since 1986, 47 school districts have splintered off to create their own whiter and wealthier districts.
When a judge ruled last week that the predominantly white Alabama city of Gardendale can secede from the majority black Jefferson County to form its own school district, the decision paved the way for the eighth such secession of wealthier and whiter municipalities in the state since 2000.
The judge’s ruling, which acknowledged that "race was a motivating factor" behind the effort despite its backers insistence they simply wanted more local control, garnered national attention because of a standing desegregation order the county has been under since 1965.
But dozens of school districts have similarly broken away from bigger ones – at least 36 since 2000, according to EdBuild, a nonprofit that focuses on education funding and inequality – moves that went largely undetected. In almost all cases, the communities involved were less diverse and had higher property values than those they left behind, compounding socioeconomic inequalities that plague public schools.
[READ: After Brown v. Board of Education, School Segregation Still Exists]
“All this stuff is happening really quietly,” says Rebecca Sibilia, founder of EdBuild. “You’re talking about students who are left behind and who are further disadvantaged by the fact that their neighbors are able to move the goal posts on them.”
In total, 30 states have a process in place allowing districts to secede, according to a legislative analysis by researchers at EdBuild, who are preparing to publish a report on secessions next month. Of those 30 states, only 17 require consideration be given to the secession’s impact on students, and only six require consideration be given to the impact on socioeconomic factors and diversity. Moreover, only nine states require a study of the potential fiscal impact to the district.
“Said another way, in 21 states school districts can secede in order to create massive differences in school funding without there needing to be any remediation,” Sibilia says. “As you start to look at the detail related to secession policies, you start to realize that this is actually something that’s very permissible in several states.”
In the case of Jefferson County, Gardendale is just the latest municipality to splinter off from the larger school district, leaving behind a school system that’s increasingly comprised of poor students and students of color.
Supporters of Gardendale's secession have been pushing for it for years, arguing that breaking off from the larger Jefferson County would give them more control over how their tax dollars are spent, with more of it going directly to its students and schools to fund things like field trips, school supplies and better teachers.
Their students currently miss out on those things, supporters say, because their education dollars are instead used to bus in students from other communities or to shore up school operations at other schools in communities with lower property values.
Cities of more than 5,000 residents can create independent school districts under Alabama’s state law. Gardendale residents leading the secession effort argued that, therefore, the federal court should have no say in the matter and that “things have changed” since the Supreme Court’s multiple desegregation rulings, the federal courts are “tired of school desegregation litigation,” and “courts must open their eyes to the conditions of the present when they consider.”
Judge Madeline Haikala of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama in Birmingham, who oversees the county’s desegregation order, refuted those assertions. She outlined extensively in the 190-page decision why prior decisions related to desegregation remain pertinent to current integration efforts and called out Gardendale residents for what she said were blatant efforts to exclude black students, pointing to various social media posts and statements at public meetings.
“We are using buses to transport nonresidents into our schools (without additional funding) from as far away as Center Point (there’s your redistribution of wealth),” one of the Gardendale organizers posted to a Facebook group created to support the secession. “A look around at our community sporting events, our churches are great snapshots of our community. A look into our schools, and you’ll see something totally different.”
Such posts, she wrote in the decision, “communicate plainly to black students … that these schools are not yours, and you are not welcome here.”
In the end, however, the judge decided to allow Gardendale to go forward with its secession plans and begin operating two elementary schools on its own as soon as the 2017-2018 school year. If, after three years, Gardendale can prove it’s acted in good faith to comply with a desegregation order, then the court will reassess its ability to operate a K-12 system independently.
“The Court is giving the Gardendale Board of Education an opportunity to demonstrate good faith,” Haikala wrote. “To date, the Gardendale Board has fallen short, but it is a new board with limited training. The Court is giving the Gardendale Board the opportunity to operate elementary schools because skills learned in elementary school prove to be the best predictors of future academic success.”
The decision placated neither side, but opponents of the secession underscored in the wake of the ruling just how detrimental such secessions can be.
“It’s a real question of fairness and equity, and it really leaves some students behind by virtue of where they live,” says Monique Lin-Luse, assistant counsel of NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, who represented the black plaintiffs in the Gardendale secession case. “There is no legal avenue to pursue equity. The way the Alabama law is written, it doesn’t require seceding to be equitable.”
But the story hardly stands alone.
One of the most egregious cases of secessions occurred recently in Memphis, Tennessee, where in 2011 the predominantly black and very low-income school district was absorbed into wealthier neighbor Shelby County after years of pushback from residents there. Three years after the two districts merged, in 2014, six communities that were part of the original Shelby County schools defected.
“In the case of Shelby County,” Sibilia says, “nobody outside Memphis knew this was happening.”
According to EdBuild’s analysis, some states make it incredibly easy for districts to splinter off.
In Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Maine, and Utah, for example, state laws don’t require that the proposal be voted on by people in the district that the seceding district is leaving behind, whereas in other states, a district-wide vote is required.
On average, the number of school-aged children in seceding districts is about 4,000 compared to the roughly 32,000 school-aged children that comprise the districts from which they secede, according to the EdBuild analysis.
“In most cases, a county is left with less resources when a municipal city school leaves,” Lin-Luse explains. “Further, where there is a racial diversity within the district, most of it is a predominantly white city leaving a more racially diverse county, and definitely one with more fiscal resources.”
Given segregating housing policy that exists in the U.S., Lin-Luse says, public schools are one of the few places that provide a true opportunity to pursue integration.
“Unfortunately,” she says, “this is a way that avenue is closed off by creating these artificial boundaries.”
About a dozen similar secession attempts are currently underway in seven states, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund is currently litigating about 100 of the roughly 300 open segregation cases in states across the country.
Lin-Luse says that in many of those cases, the goal is engaging school districts to develop plans to resolve whatever are the outstanding issues, and, if they implement the plans in good faith and there is progress, then the school district goes to court to be released from the order. The goal is to get school districts to a place where they are able to maintain equity and integration.
“But it’s difficult for a county to come up with a sustainable plan when you have to worry about municipal school districts breaking off and pulling away students and resources,” she says.
Parents are increasingly the drivers of such efforts, playing a larger role in their children’s education and putting increased pressure on school boards to ensure they have access to specific schools and are not in jeopardy of feeding into a neighboring, perhaps low-performing, one.
“School boards are under increasing pressure and one of the most emotional decisions boards have to make is when they have to draw border lines,” says Mark Elgart, president and CEO of AdvancEd, which accredits schools but is also a nonprofit that works with more than 32,000 schools. “It divides communities.”
“The parents with the most economic means have become very active in how those lines are drawn. Most of the time it’s a political and economic question, not an education question.”
Nowhere is that more on display than in the ballooning revenues of PTAs, which have tripled in size since the mid-1990s, to more than $425 million, according to a report from the Center for American Progress.
While those millions of dollars are equivalent to less than 1 percent of total school spending, the report points out, the concentration of those dollars in affluent schools results in “considerable advantages” for a small portion of already advantaged students. In effect, the report underscores, “wealthy parents are raising large sums of money to improve their already-advantaged schools.”
That’s exactly the case in the uber-wealthy Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, where parents in Malibu are attempting to secede from Santa Monica in order to have more control over which schools their PTA dollars are directed, among other things.
To be sure, the Santa Monica and Malibu example is an outlier in that both communities have high property values and, as education board members have acknowledged, neither would likely have trouble operating on their own. But arguments over resources are at the heart of debates about secessions.
The forthcoming EdBuild analysis on seceding districts is meant to, in part, Sibilia says, drive home the fact that if public education were less dependent on property taxes as its primary means of support, the financial motivation for districts to secede would vanish – or at least be greatly diminished. And that could preserve racial integration efforts in some vulnerable school districts.
“From our perspective,” Sibilia says, “if we start to lessen the focus on property as a means for paying for schools, it will take the incentive for school districts to secede out of the equation.”
Lauren Camera is an education reporter at U.S. News & World Report. She’s covered education policy and politics for nearly a decade and has written for Education Week, The Hechinger Report, Congressional Quarterly, Roll Call, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. She was a 2013 Spencer Education Fellow at Columbia’s School of Journalism, where she conducted a reporting project about the impact of the Obama administration’s competitive education grant, Race to the Top.