America’s schools are becoming increasingly segregated, research has found, with black and Latino students attending schools that are more likely to be predominately non-white and low-income than that of their white peers. Now, a new study finds that the creation of predominately white “splinter” school districts plays a significant role, by making it even harder for school integration to occur.
The findings come from research recently published in AERA Open, a journal from the American Educational Research Association. The study focuses on what education activists refer to as school “secession,” a process where smaller, new school systems are broken off from larger school districts, with supporters of the split usually arguing that they want to have more local control over funding and school resources in the newer district.
But the study finds that these moves largely have a racial and economic impact: the smaller districts created through the secession process are usually whiter and have more affluent residents than the districts they leave behind, which are larger, have more nonwhite students, and more students in low-income or impoverished households. Those differences mean that when a splinter district breaks off it can reinforce, and in some cases worsen, school segregation.
The study was conducted by academics from Pennsylvania State University and Virginia Commonwealth University along with a research analyst from Sanametrix, a technology and research organization.
The new study looks specifically at 18 of these “splinter” districts in the South, all of which seceded from larger school districts in the years between 2000 and 2015 and are concentrated in seven counties in Alabama, Louisiana, and Tennessee. The study authors explain that because schools in the South usually have a one-school district per county system, and because federal desegregation efforts were largely concentrated in the South, it is easier to see the extent and impact of recent school district secessions on the racial makeup of larger school districts.
“Recent Southern secessions reflect a narrowing conception of what is ‘public’ about public education as newly created districts seek to preserve relative racial and economic advantages for more homogeneous White areas,” the study authors write.
These areas are far from the only districts to have seceded, dozens of other communities across the country have also attempted to create new school districts in the past two decades. These decisions have often been opposed by education advocates, who argue that many of the school secessions go against the intent of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
Two decades after Brown, in 1974, a separate SCOTUS ruling weakened some desegregation efforts, making it easier for the recent secessions to occur. Currently, 30 states have laws allowing for school district secessions, few of them consider the racial or economic impact of such a decision.
The new research does find that there are impacts, noting that in the past 15 years, segregation between the southern school districts studied accounted for a growing share of school segregation in these areas, going from being the reason behind 57.7 percent of school segregation in 2000, to 63.8 percent by 2015.
For black and white students, the amount of school segregation due to school district boundaries has increased from 59.9 percent in 2000 to 70.3 percent in 2015. For Hispanic and white students, the percentage has increased from 37.1 percent to 65.1 percent.
”Our findings show that after district secessions, students are increasingly being sorted into different school districts by race,” Erica Frankenberg, a study coauthor and professor of education and demography at Pennsylvania State University, said in a statement. “Given the relative scarcity of students crossing district lines, the implications of this trend are profound.”
“School segregation is becoming more entrenched,” she adds, noting that in the areas where this is happening, increasing segregation between school districts could also have long-term effects on residential integration.
School secessions are increasing, and they’re having an impact on students
The study, published earlier in September, is the first to examine how the boundaries created by new school districts are leading to increased segregation for students, and to a lesser degree for residents, in the examined areas. The study notes that this increase has multiple effects, not only reducing the number of white students in counties where secessions have occurred, but also reducing the ability for schools to serve as a place where students of different races interact with one another.
”If this trend continues, students of color increasingly will be sorted into schools with fewer resources, segregation will become more ingrained,” Frankenberg notes. “All students will have fewer opportunities to experience the educational benefits of a diverse learning environment.”
The study fits into a growing body of research and media attention to school secession efforts in recent years. Research from EdBuild, an education nonprofit that highlights disparities in school funding, shows that 128 communities in states like Maine, Alabama, and Utah have attempted to secede since 2000, 73 of them have been successful while another 17 efforts are ongoing. The report notes that the number of school secession efforts have increased, especially in the past two years.
These secessions, education advocates argue, stand in stark opposition to the 1954 Brown ruling, which found that keeping black and white students in separate schools violated the constitution, with black students usually being isolated in inferior and underresourced schools.
Efforts to enforce the Brown decision led to an increasing number of school desegregation orders in the late 1960s and 1970s. These efforts, which included measures like busing black students into predominantly white schools, allowed for more students to attend schools with diverse student bodies. For black students, this desegregation also allowed them to access better resources, and also fueled “dramatic improvements in educational attainment, earnings and health status” according to UC Berkeley’s Rucker Johnson.
Along with the desegregation orders came court decisions ruling that districts could not secede in an effort to get around Brown. In 1972, for example, the Supreme Court created a rule finding that schools under an active desegregation order could not create a new splinter district if the new district undermined desegregation efforts.
It is rare for new desegregation orders to be enacted today, and most school desegregation orders stopped being issued in the 1990s. But there are some desegregation orders that remain active, including several in the South. These orders have been increasingly challenged in courts, with opponents arguing that the orders are outdated and no longer need to be enforced.
Along with these challenges, there has also been an increase in school secessions, some of them in an effort to carve out whiter, wealthier districts separate from more nonwhite, poorer school systems. As Vox’s Alvin Chang has reported, this effort has been enabled by a 45-year-old Supreme Court decision called Milliken v. Bradley, which created a precedent where so long as school district lines were not drawn with racist intent, districts didn’t have to participate in any integration scheme that involved another school district.
Or as Chang put it: “In other words, if you didn’t want to attend school with certain people in your district, you just needed to find a way to put a district line between you and them.”
There are high-profile examples of school secession efforts
Education advocates note that not every school secession is racial or economic in nature, EdBuild for example, explains that some secession efforts are due to issues like “shifting enrollments and geography.” But in recent years, there have been high-profile examples of predominately white neighborhoods attempting (and in some cases succeeding) to create their own school districts separate from poorer school systems that enroll a large number of nonwhite students.
In 2019, for example, white parents in an area known as St. George — which sits in the southeastern part of East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana — have launched their third attempt in six years to separate from the larger parish, which is nearly half-black, and the Baton Rouge school system, which is roughly 80 percent black. If successful, St. George would become its own city, and would create a new school district. As the Atlantic’s Adam Harris notes, the proposed new district would be “more than 70 percent white and less than 15 percent black.” The proposal to make St. George a city will be voted on this October.
Another high-profile example of school secession occurred in Gardendale, Alabama, a Birmingham suburb that is predominantly white. In the early 2010s, families and political leaders in Gardendale began working to create a separate school district from Alabama’s Jefferson County which has a large number of black students, arguing that residents wanted “local control” of the education system. Their efforts were challenged by black families and students from surrounding neighborhoods who attended Jefferson County schools in Gardendale. In 2017, the legal fight over the secession proposal landed in court.
Over the course of the trial, arguments from Gardendale leadership showed that despite wanting to leave the larger Jefferson County system, officials could not actually explain why they were dissatisfied with the current schools. The plaintiffs in the case argued that the neighborhood’s intent was to create an overwhelmingly white school system and to keep Gardendale’s property taxes from being used on black students from the surrounding area.
District Judge Madeline Haikala, who oversaw the Gardendale case, ruled in 2017 that the neighborhood had acted with the intent of excluding black children from the new school district. But she still allowed the secession effort to move forward. However, in 2018, an appeals court reversed the decision, saying that Haikala should not have allowed the secession.
While the Gardendale plan was ultimately halted, other school secessions have been allowed to occur, the secession study authors note. “It’s hard not to look at many of these instances of secession and see them as a modern-day effort by Southern whites to avoid diverse schools,” Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, a study co-author and an associate professor of educational leadership, policy, and justice at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in a press release. “This is especially true given the obstacles to comprehensive cross-district integration policies.”
As these efforts continue, and in some cases accelerate, the study authors caution that more attention needs to be paid to the impacts of school secessions, which they call “a new form of resisting desegregation amid the growing diversity of the South’s public schools.”
“Secession has weakened the potential for greater school integration across the South’s broadly defined communities,” the researchers note, “fracturing White and Black and White and Hispanic students into separate school systems.”