By Lauren Camera
June 21, 2017
Some states allow communities to create their own school districts, keeping property tax dollars in the neighborhood but siphoning funds away from poorer, underserved schools.
|A student tries to enter a high school in Memphis. The secession of|
school districts within the surrounding county has contributed to seven
Memphis-area schools closing in recent years.
In recent years, Tennessee has been the pace setter when it comes to adopting new education policies, including things like tougher standards and corresponding tests, and new ways to evaluate and pay teachers. It has even been at the forefront of the free college movement.
Such moves, driven in large part by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, have helped make the state one of the most respected in the country when it comes to trying to find ways to help close achievement gaps and better serve historically disadvantaged students – namely, poor students of color.
But unbeknownst to many, the state has also embraced a much less publicized education policy – one that makes it easy for communities to create their own school districts, and one that wealthy white communities have taken advantage of in order to splinter off from larger, more diverse and poorer school districts, taking with them millions of dollars in property taxes.
Since the Republican-run state legislature voted to enact the law in 2010, six communities have peeled away from Shelby County, the southwestern most corner of the state that includes Memphis. At least four more in other parts of the state are looking to do the same.
“It's almost criminal,” says Rebecca Sibilia, founder of EdBuild, a nonprofit that focuses on education funding and inequality, which published a report Wednesday that tracks school district secessions around the country.
“This isn’t a story of one or two communities,” Sibilia says. “This is about a broken system of laws that fail to protect the most vulnerable students. This is the confluence of a school funding system that incentivizes communities to cordon off wealth and the permissive processes that enable them to do just that.”
Indeed, the impact just one year after the six communities seceded from Shelby County was stark: Its budget was slashed by 20 percent, according to the report, and declining enrollment has since forced seven Memphis-area schools to closed and the district to lay off about 500 teachers in both 2015 and 2016.
The secession of the six communities in Shelby County is just the latest in a long and complicated history of school funding operations and shifting boundaries and demographics in and around the southern Tennessee city.
That history that largely began in 1973, when a federal court ordered Memphis to desegregate its schools by busing – an order that resulted in astounding white flight from the city to various neighborhoods in Shelby County, the school district that encircled the city.
Memphis is geographically part of Shelby County, but until recently it had autonomy to operate its schools separately from the suburban county, despite being funded in part by it. Shelby County residents had long sought to splinter off in order to retain the funding they generate through property taxes, but a 1982 state law had prevented them from doing so.
When Republicans gained control of the state legislature in 2010, and it became clear that lawmakers planned to repeal the 1982 law, the Memphis school board voted to dissolve itself into Shelby County entirely, ceding its autonomy as a way to ensure it wouldn’t lose the financial support.
But the legislature not only repealed the 1982 ban, it also put in place a process that makes it startlingly easy for municipalities to peel away, giving the green light to six communities that have already seceded from Shelby County and others across the state seeking to do that same.
Today, Tennessee has one of the most lax secession policies in the entire country: In order to create a new city school district, according to EdBuild’s analysis, the only requirements are that a municipality has a student population of 1,500 and the support of a majority of municipal voters.
Tennessee is one of three states – the others are Alabama and Mississippi – that does not require approval from any county or state authority.
“The repeal of the ban on new districts cleared the way for almost any Tennessee community seeking to segregate itself from its poorer neighbors,” Sibilia says.
Four communities in Hamilton County, which includes Chattanooga, are considering secession from the district, according to the EdBuild report.
Signal Mountain, for example, a Hamilton County suburb where the U.S. Census estimates no children live in poverty and where the county’s top-performing schools are located, has already begun studying the feasibility of seceding from Hamilton County, which has a 21 percent child poverty rate. Signal Mountain also enrolls a very small percentage of students of color.
At a recent school board meeting, the Signal Mountain committee conducting the feasibility estimated that the new district would have an additional $1.8 million as a results of seceding and retaining its tax base.
The issue of secession only recently began garnering attention last month, when an Alabama judge ruled that Gardendale, a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood outside Birmingham, would be permitted to secede from majority non-white Jefferson County School District.
But according to the EdBuild report, 30 states have laws on the books that allow communities to secede from their school district, and it’s an allowance that many municipalities have taken advantage of over the years – at least 47 since 2000.
“Across the country, wealthy communities are drawing their own school district boundaries, often creating bastions of wealth next door to high-poverty, poorly funded districts,” Sibilia says.
Of the 30 states that allow secession, the researchers at EdBuild found that only four require that seceding communities gain the majority support in the school district being left behind and only six require consideration of the racial and socioeconomic effects of the separation. Moreover, only nine states require a study of the financial impacts of dividing communities.
Currently there are nine active secession efforts in various states across the U.S., including Alabama, California, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont and Wisconsin.