An African American mother and daughter sit on the steps of the US Supreme Court Building holding a newspaper announcing banned segregation.
Published on: May 11, 2018

Back to the future: A new school district secession movement is gaining steam

by Valerie Strauss

After the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling, declaring as unconstitutional state laws permitting separate public schools for black and white students, some whites in the South resisted by opening private schools or by creating white-only public school districts.

Progress was made toward desegregation for decades after the ruling, but public schools have been resegregating for years, and this piece explains one way that it is happening. There is a new school secession movement that has been growing, and authors Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, Erica Frankenberg and Sarah Diem look at how it is playing out now in Memphis and other places.

Siegel-Hawley is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research focuses on examining school segregation and resegregation in U.S. metropolitan areas, along with strategies for promoting inclusive school communities and policy options for a truly integrated society.

Frankenberg is an associate professor of education and demography and director of the Center for Education and Civil Rights at Pennsylvania State University. Her research focuses on racial desegregation and inequality in K–12 schools with an emphasis on segregation in suburban areas, school choice and racial stratification, politics of school diversity, and the connections between school segregation and other metropolitan policies.

Diem is an associate professor of educational policy and leadership in the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis at the University of Missouri. Her research focuses on the sociopolitical and geographic contexts of education, paying particular attention to how politics, leadership and implementation of educational policies affect outcomes related to equity, opportunity and racial diversity within public schools.

By Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, Erica Frankenberg and Sarah Diem

The phenomenon of school district secession, or the splintering off whiter, wealthier districts from larger, more diverse ones, first emerged as a component of massive Southern resistance to Brown v. Board of Education. Today, secession is gaining steam once again.

Since 2000, more than 70 communities have tried to secede — and nearly 50 have succeeded. These districts include Leeds and Trussville outside of Birmingham, Ala.; Saraland, Chickasaw and Satsuma, outside of Mobile, Ala.; and Zachary from East Baton Rouge, La.

While the majority of secession movements are located in the South, they are spreading to various parts of the country from Idaho to Maine. In February, North Carolina legislators began studying how to facilitate district secession in a state long known as a model for desegregation across consolidated city-suburban school systems, although those efforts are apparently dormant, at least for this year. In Tennessee, district secession in the Memphis-Shelby County metropolitan area took shape more than five years ago while similar efforts in Chattanooga are currently underway.

Though school district secessions clearly have racial and economic impacts for both the seceding system and the one left behind, most secession stakeholders offer race-neutral justifications for their actions. The stated rationale is similar across the various communities that have attempted to secede from larger districts: Smaller school districts are more responsive to local needs, more efficient and students will benefit as a result.

Local control is power,” said a member of a suburban Chattanooga group looking to carve a new, predominately white and affluent school system out of the area’s large, diverse city-suburban school district. Last July, that group headed across the state to Memphis on a fact-finding mission about the feasibility of school district secession. The recent formation of six new suburban school systems in the Memphis area made it the destination of choice.

During the visit, Memphis area political leaders suggested they were aware of the need to combat perceptions of racial and economic exclusion. Use open enrollment to avoid the perception of “walling yourselves off,” they told the Chattanooga area group, and “control your message … if you lose your message, it will kill you.” Local control, Memphis area speakers implied, should define the messaging.

A long-standing body of evidence tells us that the presence of numerous district boundaries fragments communities and structures segregation across a metro area. But what lies beneath the seemingly unobjectionable appeal for local control? What do stakeholders associate with the local control ideal? How do race and advantage factor into conversations about secession and who is and isn’t able to secure local control of schools? Moreover, how much does the creation of new district boundary lines, through secession, actually contribute to metropolitan school segregation?

Two new research articles exploring the consolidation and then immediate fragmentation of Memphis area schools help us begin to answer some of these questions. The pieces are timely, as a clearer understanding of the impact and ideology of school district secession grows increasingly critical.  During an era of already intensifying inequality and deepening segregation, secession threatens to further contribute to these trends.

Memphis is the second largest city in Tennessee and is located in Shelby County, the largest county in the state both geographically and by population. Six additional cities/towns exist within Shelby County (Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington). Memphis is home to a majority black population (63 percent) while its surrounding municipalities are majority white (68 percent or more). The median annual family income in Memphis is also significantly lower as compared to the rest of the county. For example, Germantown residents make nearly three times as much as Memphis residents.

These stark differences in demographics are also evident in the school district that serves Memphis students and the districts that serve students in suburban areas — disparities that have existed for decades in the county. Although Memphis area districts were under desegregation orders until a decade ago, neither was successful in overcoming the hardened district boundary lines that separated black and low-income students in the Memphis City Schools from their white and more affluent peers in Shelby County Schools.

In fact, the opposite was true. For years, Shelby County Schools attempted to gain “special school district status” by the state legislature, which would have allowed them to freeze their boundaries indefinitely and cut off Memphis from a tax base that funded both city and county school districts. These efforts were impeded by a 1982 state legislature ban against special school districts. However, after the 2010 elections and the shift in power in the Tennessee legislature and governorship to the Republicans (Republicans have held this trifecta since 2011), many believed the special school district status ban would be lifted.

One month after the election, in an effort to stop special school district status from being granted to the suburbs and to address its dire financial status, the Memphis City School board voted 5 to 4 to surrender its charter, paving the way for a city-county school district consolidation.

The reaction to the charter surrender was fiery and swift. Suburban state representatives introduced legislation to stop the merger and several lawsuits ensued. The merger of the two districts was eventually authorized by a federal judge and a 21-member Transition Planning Commission (TPC) was created by state law to oversee the merger. After eight months of meetings and planning, the TPC came up with a transition plan that would help guide the leadership of the newly merged district from daily operations to academics.

Yet, while the TPC was crafting its recommendations, the Tennessee state legislature passed legislation allowing for the creation of new school districts in Shelby County. The six suburban municipalities quickly moved forward with referendums to create new school systems (all passed with overwhelming support).  In August 2014, one year after the merged city-county school district began operations, six new suburban school systems opened. The merged school system, Shelby County Schools, encompasses students living in the city of Memphis and unincorporated areas of the county, a student population that is majority black and low-income.

After an extensive two-year study of school district consolidation and secession in the Memphis area, here’s what we found:

  • To justify the explosion of multiple, small school districts just one year after the creation of single, unified urban-suburban one, Memphis-area municipalities latched onto the ideology of local control. Suburban motivation for secession embraced a powerfully appealing vision of fostering relative success in small, efficient, accountable and well-resourced school districts.
  • In the aftermath of the 2007-2009 Great Recession, and in the midst of anti-government sentiment that helped give rise to the tea party wave, suburban leaders pointed to local control as a way of cementing the relationships between strong economic development, controlled and responsive bureaucracy, quality school systems and robust housing prices — all in a race-neutral manner. Local control, in short, became a favorable way to discuss the preservation and accumulation of resource advantages that mapped onto existing racial cleavages.
  • Secession in the Memphis area meant that urban concerns over unequal resources — the impetus for the merger — were subsumed under the guise of establishing the suburbs’ right to local control. Moreover, suburbanites we interviewed did not recognize the lack of control urban leaders had over their schools and district, in part due to the exercising of local control by suburban residents.
  • The growing perception of education as a relative benefit to a local community is one of the key differences between the two eras that have given rise to local control as a means of preserving racial and/or resource advantage. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision laid out broad societal goals for public education, including its fundamental importance for democracy and citizenship. Even as local control became part of the resistance to Brown’s desegregation decree, the decision’s detractors did not dispute those general educational goals. Today, a sharply constricted vision of the purpose of education has rationalized the pursuit and accumulation of advantage through local control. The contemporary strength of local control thus is related to both an increasing acceptance of colorblindness — by the courts and by society — and a competitive, individualistic framing of public education.
  • Another distinguishing feature of the contemporary era is the intensity of economic inequality. Resistance to Brown, as massive as it was, came during a period of widely shared and expanding prosperity for whites. Economic anxiety now flows easily across racial and geographic  lines, Indeed, the explosive growth of suburban poverty in the last decade and a half likely heightened the Memphis area competition for resources, helping redefine “local” to mean the smaller municipal communities rather than the broader Shelby County landscape.
  • In the wake of the suburban demerger, the majority of all area school segregation stems from the fact that students are spread out across separate school districts, not just separate schools within districts.  To illustrate: Shelby County Schools, in the first post-merger year, contained over 87 percent of all black students and free/reduced lunch eligible students in the county even though the district served only 75 percent of the total enrollment.
  • Across the span of the consolidation and secession, there were vast differences in the respective contributions of between-district and within-district segregation to the overall segregation of students. The highest contribution of segregation between districts, accounting for 60 percent of all segregation, occurred after secession happened when eight separate districts existed in 2014-15.
  • In four of the six new suburban municipal districts, the typical student attends a school serving approximately 15 percent or fewer low-income students. In Shelby County Schools, the typical black or Latino student attends a school serving 80 percent or more low income students.

So, what can we do? Is district secession inevitable? We believe that it doesn’t have to be.  Below are some suggestions for comprehensive response and action.

Federal: Students and families concerned with the potential segregating effects of district secessions could file complaints with the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Education Department. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) could also offer an opportunity to include school diversity as part of the accountability framework, as New York is doing. Federal efforts during the Obama administration to offer grants for communities to plan or implement integration efforts were discontinued under the current administration, but public and/or private funding to support efforts could help to bolster regional efforts to merge or cross district boundaries in ways that would further integration.

Courts: The recent U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit decision denying a suburban attempt to break off from a countywide district still under a court desegregation order in the Birmingham metropolitan area illustrates the vital role of the courts in impeding the resegregation of public schools; the Gardendale community has subsequently ended efforts to secede. State courts, can also play a critical role in interpreting the constitutional right to an education, which can also include promoting integration. Federal courts are likely to be most useful in districts in which desegregation orders already exist, although they also require the active monitoring of all parties involved to raise concerns about potential secession efforts.

State: Working across political jurisdictions is challenging, and states could play a key role in facilitating this collaboration, removing bureaucratic hurdles to doing so, and helping areas learn from one another. Moreover, state law, as seen in the Tennessee case, can be crucial in the relative ease with which districts can secede. Amending state laws to require more input and deliberation — including assessing the potential segregating impact of secessions — is key to addressing the secession trend. Tennessee prohibited secession in the past, and there is variation in how states’ laws are structured. However, suburban politicians in Tennessee and elsewhere have helped to make or maintain more lenient secession laws.

Educating the public: In the Memphis community, like many others, the inability to openly confront the legacy of decades of segregation and inequality meant there was little understanding across racial, economic or geographic lines. This lack of trust made it difficult to work together on a shared vision for how county residents could support a public education system that would provide well-resourced learning environments for all. Likewise, helping communities understand the benefits of educating all students, including in integrated schools, could help frame policy options differently.

Advocacy/coalition building: Politically, urban communities and inner-ring suburban communities could form coalitions to advance efforts to work more regionally and across sectors as well. Efforts to ensure that all communities (geographically as well as by race/ethnicity) will have proportional representation on leadership bodies are also critical.

Though history suggests that it is difficult to protect and expand civil rights during periods of deep economic inequality, the dangers of not confronting the growing wave of secessions — and the colorblind, individualistic ideology that lies beneath them — are all too real. Without careful attention to their racial and economic impact on more broadly defined local communities, already alarming segregation in our public schools will only intensify.