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Schools Become Whiter and Wealthier in Communities That Secede From Districts

Since 2000, 47 communities have broken away from their old school districts to form new ones—often creating school systems that are wealthier and less racially diverse.

And nine others are in the process of seceding from their current school districts, according to a new report released Wednesday by EdBuild, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that focuses on school funding inequity.

The secessions have been happening largely under the radar as some communities—with the help of state law and policies—seek to wall off their wealth and resources, said Rebecca Sibilia, EdBuild's founder and CEO.

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Thirty states have laws that allow communities to break away from their current school districts, according to the report.

The secessions were not confined to any one region. Maine, for example, has had the most secessions during the period that EdBuild reviewed. 

EdBuild argues that the secessions create districts of haves and have-nots, duplicate bureaucracies, divide students along racial and socio-economic lines, and leave behind poorer students with fewer resources to educate them.

One recent case in Gardendale, Ala., where a majority-white town outside of Birmingham sought to secede from the more diverse Jefferson County school district, made national headlines.

Last month, a U.S. District Court judge approved Gardendale's request to create its own school district, even as she acknowledged in her ruling that the secession attempt was motivated by race.

Alabama is one state where it's relatively easy for districts to secede, according to EdBuild. Municipalities with more than 5,000 residents can leave their county school system after negotiating with the county district, according to the report.

"It's almost criminal how easy this stuff is in some states," Sibilia said.

In Tennessee, municipalities with a student population of at least 1,500 can leave a district if a majority of voters in the municipality approves the departure. 

Tennessee is a good example of how state laws that allow secessions can have unintended consequences, Sibilia said.

In 2013, Shelby County, Tenn., had two school districts: the city of Memphis' school system, with a largely non-white student body, and the Shelby County school district, which largely educated students living in the suburbs. Shelby County had a median family income that was almost twice that of Memphis, and its property values dwarfed values in the city.

Knowing that the state legislature planned to change the law to allow suburban communities to break away, Memphis dissolved its school system and merged with Shelby County schools. 

In 2014, six suburban Memphis-area municipalities opened their own school districts. The results were the creation of smaller districts with lower poverty rates than the students left in Shelby County, which was now largely Memphis city schools, according to EdBuild. Memphis, on the other hand, saw its budget drop by 20 percent and had to lay off hundreds of teachers and close schools.

A Shelby County commissioner who supported the creation of the new districts told Chalkbeat Tennessee that the secessions were about local control, not race.

"There are a lot of problems in the inner city and big city that we don't have in municipalities in terms of poverty and crime," Terry Roland, the commissioner, told the online education news outlet. "We're able to give folks more opportunities because our schools are smaller."

While the changes in the state law were directed at Shelby County, other communities, including Signal Mountain, near Chattanooga, Tenn., are also pursuing secession.

The EdBuild report does not look at whether students in the smaller, newer districts performed better academically.

Sibilia said that she understood that people are inclined to want to look out for themselves and their children. Education, however, is a common good, she said.

"What we are talking about are the places like Gardendale, where the mayor said 'we want to keep our money to ourselves and not share it with the kids throughout Jefferson County.' That is where it becomes a problem—that communities are just opting out of the common good."

"We don't allow people to say 'I am not going to pay taxes to the federal government for Medicare because no one I know is receiving support from Medicare,'" she continued. "People don't get to opt out of their local taxes that fund a bridge that they never cross. This is about [the] tax base taking care of all of the needs of the community and particularly the most vulnerable of our community, and this is a story of opting out of that." 

Although 30 states have laws on the books that allow secessions, not all of those laws are "permissive," she said.

Six states require districts to consider the racial and socio-economic effects of a secession, while nine require studies on the financial impacts. Ohio alone requires the approval of the state legislature for secession to occur, according to the report. Louisiana, Florida, and Georgia, require a constitutional amendment. (That did not stop Louisiana from amending its constitution to allow communities once served by the East Baton Rouge parish to secede and set up their own school systems.)

What has led to this?

Sibilia says it goes back to a 1974 Supreme Court decision, Milliken v. Bradley, which prevented states from administering desegregation plans across district lines. State incentives, including an education funding system that relies heavily on local property taxes, also helps to drive some of the breakaways, she said. In some cases, like in Colorado, state incentives that give additional money to smaller school districts have prompted some of the efforts to create smaller systems.

Regardless of whether the secessions are driven by racial and socio-economic factors, that's often the result, according to EdBuild. 

Sibilia said she'd like to see state laws amended so that there is more focus on examining the overall financial, socio-economic, and racial impact that secessions will have. The Milliken decision will have to be addressed, she said.

"Because we allow these borders to have outsized importance and because we allow people to believe that they can keep their own wealth in order to serve just their students, it creates an incentive in the system where you, frankly, can't blame communities for wanting to do this," she said. "I think the ultimate fix is that we are going to have to go back at Milliken, and we are going to have to really systemically change the way that we are funding schools."

Image source: Fractured: Breakdown of America's School Districts, EdBuild, 2017

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