Editor’s note: The word “secession” is often used in reference to states or countries that wish to break off and form their own government. But here in the United States, there are communities that want to secede from their school districts to form their own. One of the latest examples is a case in Gardendale, Alabama, where a court recently ruled that the community’s attempt to leave the Jefferson County, Alabama, school district was motivated by racial discrimination and therefore unconstitutional. In order to gain more insight into what’s driving school district secession efforts, The Conversation reached out to Erica Frankenberg, who has examined the effect of the school secession movement on school segregation in Jefferson County and throughout the nation.
1. Why are some communities trying to break off their schools from larger school districts to form their own districts? Is it about educational efficiency or are race and ethnicity at play?
Seceding communities often argue they want more local control. They also argue that secession will assist community development efforts and increase home values. But secessions imperil desegregation by creating additional boundary lines that separate resources and students by race and class.
Gardendale’s secession materials don’t mention race at all, but two recent federal court decisions stated that race indeed was a significant factor. The materials warned that the community didn’t want to become like other communities in the county that didn’t gain local control of schools. Even though they didn’t mention the racial composition of these communities, the courts found this to be evidence of racial discrimination.
This is an example, repeated in communities across the South, of how “local control” may sound racially neutral but is also used to justify more narrowly defining a community and its resources to educate what is typically a majority white group of children. Such moves further segregation.
2. It’s almost 2020. Why are we still dealing with court desegregation orders that were issued in the 1950s and 60s?
In some states like Alabama, desegregation didn’t even start until 1963, almost 10 years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that called for an end to segregation in public schools. Districts resisted integration to the extent possible, and it was up to judges and black plaintiffs and lawyers to accomplish desegregation.
The court in Gardendale’s case noted the challenge of trying to desegregate with a continually changing size and enrollment due to secession. Seven school districts enrolling more than 27,000 students have seceded from the Jefferson County district since its desegregation order in 1965. Trussville was the most recent district to secede in 2005. Our research found diversity in Jefferson County’s school district has decreased as school districts secede. The white percentage of students would be 10 percentage points higher if including the enrollment of districts that have seceded since 1970.
So, while the court orders began more than 50 years ago, they must be updated to reflect today’s demographic and policy realities. In many cases, judges are doing that work – as are the plaintiffs and the Department of Justice. Today’s desegregation orders not only ensure that black and white students go to school together to the extent possible, but that there is equality within the school as well.
3. What does the research about academic and social outcomes say about the importance of whether black and white children attend segregated or desegregated schools?
Desegregation is beneficial for white students, who have the lowest exposure to students of other races. For white students in diverse schools, attending schools with students from different racial backgrounds relates to lower prejudice and greater comfort working across racial lines. These skills are important in today’s diverse workplace.
Even more research shows that black students – and Latino students, where studied – benefit from attending desegregated schools compared to segregated schools because diverse schools tend to have more resources that improve educational opportunities. In other words, on a large scale, we have never made separate, segregated schools equal.
4. Are there sociological reasons to be concerned about desegregating the nation’s public schools?
One of the rationales of school desegregation is that it will result in more integrated communities. And indeed, secession not only furthers school segregation but inequality among communities as well.
In our research, we found that growing, affluent, highly educated white communities often exist next to communities with declining populations, lower income and higher percentages of black residents. School funding is affected when home values in neighboring school districts diverged sharply like they have in Jefferson County, particularly after school districts formed. More specifically, in the decade immediately after the formation of a new district, the community’s values are most likely to surge as they now offer a separate district as an additional “amenity.”
5. Even though Gardendale ended its bid to secede from Jefferson County school district, there are other efforts afoot in Alabama and throughout the nation for communities to secede. How much more of this will we see in the future, and how likely are secession efforts to succeed?
State laws vary as to when and how district secession can take place. In Alabama, district secession is quite permissible. Other southern states, which often have countywide districts, have also recently made it easier to secede or are contemplating such actions, although North Carolina recently postponed any effort to make district secession easier.
Since courts have ruled that districts have eliminated existing segregation and released them from judicial oversight, today few court orders remain.
As a result, many school districts may find an easier path to secession. Unless courts step in to prevent future Gardendale-type secessions, allowing new districts to form may have harmful implications for racial justice and democracy. As a result, it will be up to political leaders and the residents of local communities to fully examine whether proposed secessions will further educational segregation and inequality.