In the history of court-ordered desegregation, school districts in Southern states stand out for how separate they once kept children of different races—and how quickly that racial apartheid was dismantled.
That swing reversed itself, however, and a new study probes the repurcussions of a more-recent trend: affluent and often predominantly white communities splitting off from larger school systems to form districts of their own.
The new report, published by the American Educational Research Association, examined seven counties in Alabama, Louisiana, and Tennessee. Together, those counties accounted for 18 of the 47 new school districts formed in the United States between 2000 and 2017.
Those new school districts in the South tended to increase segregation in their communities, the study found. For example, in 2000, school boundaries accounted for about 60 percent of the segregation between black and white students in the seven counties studied. By 2015, researchers said that new school district boundaries contributed to 70 percent of the separation between black and white schoolchildren in those seven counties.
For Hispanic students, school district boundaries contributed to 37 percent of their separation from white students in the communities studied. By 2015, boundaries accounted for 65 percent of the school segregation between the two groups.
The study found that, overall, new school district boundaries were not associated with an increase in residential segregation. But an increased level of residential segregation showed up when looking specifically at counties with the longest history of school districts separating themselves.
Supporters of these new districts say they were motivated to split from existing larger districts because they wanted local control of their schools. But such a rationale can still produce a discriminatory effect, said Erica Frankenberg, a study co-author and the director of Penn State’s Center for Education and Civil Rights.
“There needs to be a larger messaging about public schools being a public, not private, good,” she said.
Segregation’s Long History
The percentage of black students in the South attending schools with large populations of white students has dropped steadily since then, driven by legal challenges to desegregation orders and curtailment of civil rights enforcement. The trend of school district secession is only the latest factor.
Among the districts studied was Pike Road, which pulled out of the Montgomery, Ala., district in 2015. Montgomery’s district has struggled academically and is under state intervention. About 80 percent of Montgomery’s 28,000 students are black.
The trend to create smaller school districts from larger systems has increased racial segregation in the South, researchers say. But secessions are not just happening in southern states. As of April, 17 secession movements were actively under way, 10 of them outside the South.
Silver Creek, Ind.
West Scott, Iowa
St. George, La.
East Helena, Mont.
Woodcliff Lake, N.J.
Mint Hill, N.C.
East Austin, Texas
In the nearly 2,000-student Pike Road system, just over half of students were white last year, while about 30 percent were African American. The remainder were Asian, Hispanic or multiracial. That’s a higher share of black students than other suburban districts around Montgomery seen as alternatives to Pike Road.
The system’s leaders point to that diversity, which roughly mirrors schools across Alabama, as proof that they’re not a white-flight suburb. Superintendent Chuck Ledbetter said some students came to Pike Road from private schools that were much more likely to be overwhelmingly white.
“They had essentially self-segregated by going to the private school and have made a choice that leads to integration, to be part of a more integrated system than most of the private schools are,” Ledbetter said. “For those parents I don’t think it was about segregation or integration. I think it was about looking for quality schooling.”
Increasing separation between black and white students matters because of the strong association between schools that are predominantly minority, and schools with high poverty rates. Impoverished schools tend to have the least-experienced teachers, and students who need the most supports to thrive.
Secessions also have a serious economic impact on districts, especially when areas with a high tax base separate themselves, leaving behind a district with fewer resources, said Zahava Stadler, director of policy for the nonprofit organization EdBuild, which studies school secessions and how they affect school funding.
“These are state policy problems,” Stadler said, adding that officials are shirking their responsibilities to all the children in their states when they allow districts to fracture. “The more people who jump ship in this fashion, the worse it’s going to be for the children left behind.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 2019 edition of Education Week as Secessions Exacerbate Segregation, Study Finds