The Splintering of Wealthy Areas From School Districts Is Speeding Up
In the years since the Great Recession, more superintendents have faced dwindling resources and tense arguements over how to allocate them. And in a rapidly increasing number of districts, leaders face fights to keep wealthier clusters of schools from splintering off entirely.
The nonprofit group EdBuild finds 27 communities in 13 states attempting to secede from their districts in the past two years. Eleven successfully became new districts, and the rest are locked in ongoing fights, most spilling into the courts and state legislatures.
That's a sharp uptick. In the group's 2017 study of school district secessions, EdBuild found 101 communities tried to break away from their school districts in total from 2000 to 2016, 63 of them successfully. School districts have always restructured, usually due to significant shifts in student enrollment or consolidations—Maine alone has seen eight new splinter districts and one continuing secession fight, unwinding district consolidation from 2007 and the 1960s. But breakaways might be becoming more commonplace as districts face shrinking budgets and uncertain state funding, the report suggests.
And the separations raise ugly questions about economic and racial segregation between the new districts and those left behind.
"If we're going to look at the effects, we can see the motivations" for some communities to break away, said Zahava Stadler, an EdBuild researcher and the author of the report. "We can say that a clear majority of districts that successfully seceded have higher median household income, higher median property values, lower rates of student poverty, lower rates of nonwhite students, and clearly higher rates of local tax dollars for their school district than the districts that they are leaving behind," Stadler said. "I mean, if you're going to wind up with less-diverse classrooms and keeping more local money for [the schools in the new district] than they had before [as part of the old district], it's not a mystery as to why this occurred."
Keeping Districts Together
In fact, some recent secession attempts like one in Gardendale, Ala., have been thwarted by legal interventions meant to counter a history of racial segregation in the area; the Supreme Court has ruled that districts under a desegregation order cannot split if doing so would increase segregation. But the number of districts under active desegregation orders has waned for decades.
The report highlighted some ways states and districts can discourage separation:
- Texas requires communities from the existing district and proposed new district to each vote to approve the split, preventing wealthier communities from unilaterally splitting from poorer ones. In Louisiana, a state bill has been proposed to do the same, which could quell an ongoing attempt by the St. George community to separate from the East Baton Rouge district.
- Wisconsin requires all proposals for new districts to take into account potential effects on school funding and racial and socioeconomic diversity.
- Districts can encourage active engagement of all parents and communities, to prevent those from any one area from dominating. Local activists in Mt. Diablo Unified school district have been aggressively fighting against a move by the wealthy Northgate communities to create their own district.
It may also remains important for district and school leaders to do more to bring different parts of their communities together and to explain their reasons for balancing resources among different schools—before people start talking about leaving.
"When state resources get more scarce, you see less equalization. You see bigger divides open up ... and you might have a sharper motivation for a property-wealthy enclave to put up a fence," Stadler said. "District leaders can arm local activists with information by saying, here's what it would really do to us. Here's what it would do to our classrooms, here's what it would do to our budgets. That's the kind of thing where the passion can come from the community, and the data and the evidence can come from the district. And together, that's a very powerful combination."
Chart: EdBuild's map lays out communities that are attempting to or have successfully seceded from their larger school district. Source: EdBuild
- Schools Become Whiter and Wealthier in Communities That Secede From Districts
- Appeals Court Rules Mostly White City Can't Form Segregated School District
- Proposed District Secession Fans Racial Flames
- Commentary: Is There a Path to Desegregated Schools?
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