A new secessionist movement, anchored in the South, provides yet another reminder that “separate” still means “unequal” when it comes to the racial dynamics of the nation’s public schools.
The small middle-class town of Gardendale, Alabama, outside Birmingham, voted on November 12 to secede from the Jefferson County school district and then to raise taxes on themselves to finance the solo venture. Then, in March, Gardendale’s 14,000 residents finally got their own Board of Education. Soon after his appointment, one new board member, Clayton “Dick” Lee III, a banker and father of two, said he aspires to build a “best in class” school system “which exceeds the capabilities of the system which we are exiting.”
As Gardendale officials try to construct that “best in class” system in their prosperous community, they’ve relied on advice from their neighbors to the east in Trussville, a wealthy white suburb that broke away from the county schools in 2005. Gardendale, where about 86 percent of residents are white, is the fourth district since the late 1980s to secede from Jefferson County’s schools. About half the students in Jefferson County’s schools are either African-American or Latino, and 57 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch, the standard marker for poverty in public education.
With 36,000 students, Jefferson County’s shrinking catchment area is emblematic of a new secessionism in which cities, towns, even unincorporated areas renounce membership in a larger school district to strike out on their own. A trend befitting our individualistic times, secessionism, in many cases, cracks apart well-established, broadly defined educational communities into ever more narrow and ever more racially homogeneous ones. Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, new break away districts threaten to exacerbate resource disparities between wealthy and poor communities and sweep away any remnants of desegregation.
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an organized group of residents from an unincorporated, predominantly white, relatively affluent area with a strong tax base are trying to form an entirely new eighty-five-square-mile city for the express purpose of separating from the East Baton Rouge Parish Schools, which, by the way, enroll a majority of black and economically disadvantaged students. At the same time, a bill that would create four semi-autonomous school districts in this same southern section of Baton Rouge is being considered by the Louisiana legislature. The proposed new city, St. George, would not be the first secession from East Baton Rouge Parish schools. In recent years, three municipalities have created their own school districts, though not all were particularly affluent or predominantly white.
Next fall, the rapidly growing, predominantly white Alabama community Pike Road, with only 6,500 residents, will open its first K-8 school post-divorce from Montgomery County Public Schools, where 83 percent of its some 32,000 students are either African-American or Latino and 76 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch. Since the mid-2000s, six suburban, predominantly white unincorporated areas outside Atlanta incorporated and became cities. A bill being debated in Georgia’s legislature would amend the state constitution to give the new municipalities authority to secede from county school districts to create their own systems.
Secession efforts are not limited to the South, with efforts cropping up recently in Malibu, California, and in northeast Pennsylvania. But the movement is centered in the South because the region’s districts tend to be larger, often enrolling students who live in cities and towns throughout an entire county as opposed to a small municipality.
Several years ago, Memphis, Tennessee, briefly appeared to be going against the secession trend. In 2010, the cash-strapped city school board voted to dissolve its mostly African-American urban district and merge with Shelby County’s racially and economically diverse public school system. After the vote, the Shelby County School Superintendent John Aitken welcomed new students from the city, telling reporters, “My family just got bigger.”
“A lot of people did see this merger as a foundation on which to build something better,” said Daniel Kiel, a law professor at the University of Memphis who grew up in the city and attended racially diverse magnet schools there. “We looked at as a first step for bridging racial divides and economic divides. We thought maybe we had a place from which to begin creating something more cohesive.”
But not long after Memphis entered the county system, six predominantly white, relatively affluent suburbs promptly voted to leave it. Then, in 2013, Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill that lifted a prohibition on creating new school districts. In turn, each suburb created its own school district last summer. The new school board in one of those suburban districts, Collierville, hired Aitken, the Shelby County superintendent who had spoken such welcoming words, to be its superintendent.
“Within these movements, you hear a lot about a desire for local control and academic excellence. No one is going to say, ‘We don’t want to share our schools with poor black people.’ But the effect matters, no matter the intent,” said Dennis Parker, director of the Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union. “And the effect will not be positive for the families in the larger system. The damage to school communities of color is very real.”
New municipalities and neighborhoods take a variety of resources with them when they leave bigger systems. Most obviously, they take students on which tax dollar distributions to schools are based. In most cases, newly created districts capture all taxable property within tighter boundary lines, cutting off the larger district from revenue that had been shared. Rapidly developing or well-developed suburbs, thus, have a huge advantage over older communities that typically suffer from declines in population and shrinking tax revenue. The creation of St. George, one study estimates, would result in a $53 million shortfall for East Baton Rouge Parish. According to a report from the Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce, the incorporation would impede economic development by “the interjection of sales tax competition between two cities currently considered one community.”
Other losses are more difficult to measure. Student test scores are closely correlated with students’ socioeconomic class. If a new district enrolls a large share of affluent students, that district’s aggregate test scores, now the default measure of “quality,” will likely be high. Immediately, the new district will appear far more “successful” than the nearby larger district. For example, Louisiana publicly awards A to F letter grades to its school districts. In 2011, East Baton Rouge earned a D, but by 2013 had brought that grade up to a C, though secession advocates still routinely refer to it as a “failing” district. Meanwhile, the more affluent districts nearby, Zachary and Central, which not long ago were part of the East Baton Rouge district but now enroll relatively small shares of students from low income families, earned As from the state in 2013.
“It’s a form of branding,” said Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Stephen Nowlin, who publicly opposed Gardendale’s efforts to secede from his district. “The idea is that more affluent school district can attract businesses, increase property value, bring in a certain type of resident who can lend economic stability and enhance a particular image. I can respect the interest in that and their right to do this. I just worry that we’ve gotten away from thinking about the larger community.”
The desire for “good schools” drives people’s decisions about where to live. And as research by Professor Jennifer Holme of the University of Texas–Austin has shown, white people’s presumptions about “good schools” are driven by “status ideologies” formed by race and class biases. Secessionism makes it even easier to act on such prejudices because it creates school districts that are starkly identified by the race and social class of students. Home values, tied to a school district’s reputation, will likely go up or go down accordingly, further aiding a community’s ascension or decline.
Parents and educators fighting against secessionism in their communities caution that the phenomenon shouldn’t be seen only as a manifestation of white people’s desire to avoid sharing classrooms with African-Americans. In many places—Memphis, Baton Rouge, much of Alabama—housing segregation is so extreme that post-desegregation, individual schools tend to be racially segregated even if a school district as a whole enrolls a racial mix of students. Beginning in the 1990s, a series of Supreme Court decisions made it easier for school districts that had been under desegregation orders to be freed from judicial oversight. Post-desegregation, many school boards in the South went on to redraw school attendance boundaries coterminous with racially segregated neighborhood configurations. The proposed new city of St. George in Louisiana would be nearly a quarter African-American, according to some estimates.The city of Baton Rouge is about 55 percent African-American.
Nowadays, it may be tax dollars, benefits of economic growth, or power on school boards that secessionists would prefer not to share. Perhaps secessionists don’t want to be associated with a lower-status school district that posts lackluster test scores. Even if we assume non-racial motivations, secessionism could still undermine the hard-won racial diversity lingering in some schools.
East Baton Rouge provides a case in point. Like a lot of other big districts in the South, it operates several well-regarded racially diverse magnet schools. Originally created under desegregation, the popular programs were retained even after they were released from court supervision. East Baton Rouge Parish’s school superintendent Bernard Taylor has said that magnet schools may not survive under St. George’s incorporation. The new district would siphon a large share of the district’s white students and a chunk of the tax dollars that pay for the specialized programs.
“I very strongly prefer that my children attend racially diverse schools,” said Tania Nyman, a white mother of two, who is trying to prevent creation of new districts in Baton Rouge. “I believe that a public school system that is truly public and welcomes all children in the entire community is a really, really important foundation for democracy. But I suppose that sounds very old-fashioned. Doesn’t it?”