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Racial Segregation Grows as Southern Communities Splinter Into New Districts

Court-ordered school desegregation had a profound impact on school districts in the South, which went from racial apartheid to being the nation's most integrated in 1970. At the peak of integration in 1988, 44 percent of black students in the South attended schools where the student body was mostly white

The percentage of black students in the South attending schools with large populations of white students has dropped steadily since then, driven by legal challenges to desegregation orders and curtailment of civil rights enforcement. And, a new study has found another, more recent factor contributing to segregation: affluent and predominantly white Southern communities forming their own school districts,

In "School District Secessions in the South Have Deepened Racial Segregation between School Systems," published by the American Educational Research Association, the study's authors examined seven counties in Alabama, Louisiana, and Tennessee. Together, those counties accounted for 18 new school districts formed between 2000 and 2017.

The study looked at how much school segregation was driven in those communities by the boundaries of school districts. In 2000, school boundaries accounted for about 60 percent of the segregation between black and white students. By 2015, boundaries contributed to 70 percent of the separation between black and white schoolchildren. 

Increasing separation between black and white students matters because of the strong association between schools that are predominantly minority, and schools that have high poverty rates. Impoverished schools tend have the least-experienced teachers, and students who need the most supports to thrive.

The study found that new school district boundaries, overall, was not associated with an increase in residential segregation. But such segregation was seen when looking specifically at the counties with the longest history of school district successions. 

The researchers say their findings offer a cautionary note as communities continue to look for ways to break off from larger districts; the nonprofit group EdBuild said there has been a sharp uptick in such efforts.

Supporters of these new districts say they were motivated by factors such as local control of their schools to secede from existing larger districts. But those rationales still produce a discriminatory effect, said Erica Frankenberg, a study co-author and the director of Penn State's Center for Education and Civil Rights.

"There needs to be a larger messaging about public schools being a public, not private, good," she said. 

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