Communities that break away from countywide districts to form their own school systems typically serve more white students than the “left-behind” districts, according to a new study examining the trend of district secession in Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee.
Focusing on East Baton Rouge in Louisiana, Shelby County in Tennessee and five counties in Alabama, the researchers write that secession is “eroding what has historically been one of the cornerstones of school desegregation in the South: the one-county, one-school-system jurisdiction.”
Appearing in AERA Open, a journal from the American Educational Research Association, the study reports that between 2000 and 2015, the percentage of school segregation for black and white students that can be attributed to district boundaries in those counties has increased from 59.9% to 70.3%. For Hispanic and white students, it has increased from 37.1% to 65.1%, they write.
In a video released along with the study, researcher Erica Frankenberg of Pennsylvania State University describes the theory of “social closure.”
“In places in which white and black groups, for example, feel like they are getting to be rather similar,” she said, “white families that have more resources may use the opportunity to draw boundaries to try to protect the relative advantage.”
In Mobile County, Alabama, for example — where the Chickasaw, Saraland and Satsuma school districts have formed since 2007 — between-district segregation has increased from 2.2% to 8.7%.
In an op-ed last year, Frankenberg describes how, as a child growing up in Mobile County, she “hopscotched across the boundary lines now dividing the county's schools and assignment of students.” She notes how Alabama, specifically, makes secession “quite easy to accomplish.”
The researchers find that increases in residential segregation don’t happen immediately following a district secession. But looking at two Alabama counties where secessions have been occurring the longest — Jefferson and Marshall — they found that over time, neighborhoods were also increasingly segregated, “including those without children in the public schools,” they write.
Charter impact is mixed
The impact of schools without residential boundaries — the Achievement School District in Tennessee and charter schools in East Baton Rouge — is more complicated because families can change schools without moving. The authors write that it is “unclear how the growth of charter schools in the region might emerge as a complementary segregating mechanism from countywide districts and whether that has a different longer-term effect on residential segregation.”
One of the criticisms of charter schools in general is that they have contributed to segregation, but the story is “far more complex, with wide variations in different communities and different schools,” Brian Gill of Mathematica Policy Research wrote last year in a rebuttal to an op-ed by Erin Aubry Kaplan, a columnist in Los Angeles. Kaplan wrote that charter schools were an “expression” of waning interest in integrating public schools.
She referenced research showing black students attending charter schools were more likely to be in a segregated setting than peers in traditional public schools. But Gill responded that the demographics of students in charter schools shouldn’t be compared to the nation, states or even large metro areas, but instead to that of “charter students’ local options, which are often quite segregated themselves.”
In recent years, there has also been an increase in charters that are intentionally diverse. The Diverse Charter Schools Coalition has grown from 14 original schools to over 175.
Expanding the research
The new study adds to the work nonprofit EdBuild has conducted on the impact of district secession on school finance. “It was clear to us that there were also racial impacts, especially in the South, and it's great that new research is taking a close look at that specific concern,” said Zahava Stadler, the director of policy at EdBuild.
EdBuild's “Fractured” analysis notes secession policies often don’t take into account “the efficiency of the system or the welfare of the children left behind.”
In Alabama this year, however, legislation was enacted that notes how secession of a city district can “create a material and adverse effect upon the financial position of the county board of education.” The law applies only to Baldwin County — which has experienced significant population growth — and requires the newly formed district to pay the county district for buildings and any contracts related to those facilities.
The Gulf Shores City School District, new this fall, is the first one to break off from the county.
The study by Frankenberg, Kendra Taylor of Sanametrix, a technology and consulting company, and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley of Virginia Commonwealth University also shows that, since 2000, the segregation of Hispanic and white students due to secession has increased from about one third to two thirds.
In an earlier paper this year, researchers at three universities wrote that Latino students in elementary school, especially those in immigrant families” are less likely than in 1998 to attend school with white peers. But they also found increasing socioeconomic diversity since then.