In the past two decades, 128 communities have had a simple idea: to make their own school district.
For many of them, the underlying purpose was to draw a legal fence between their community and a poorer one. Because a large chunk of public education is funded using local property taxes, making your own district with your affluent neighbors means that you’re able to hoard resources — and not share tax dollars with poorer communities of color.
In 2017, I wrote about how a surprising number of these efforts have succeeded.
Since then, 10 more communities have seceded from their districts, according to a report from EdBuild. Another 17 communities are currently in the process of trying to secede. And two states — Indiana and North Carolina — have made it easier for these communities to form their own districts.
“It’s a disturbing trend. We’re seeing legislators making this overtly permissible,” said EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia.
To be clear, school secession isn’t a viral trend yet. Most of the new divisions are in Maine, where Republican Gov. Paul LePage successfully pushed the legislature to lift penalties on communities that left regionalized districts. And some of the seceding districts are doing so for legitimate reasons such as “shifting enrollments and geography,” as EdBuild notes.
But school secession is one of the more brazen examples of affluent communities using their political clout to fence out everyone else. And as leading school segregation writer Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in 2017, “School secessions, at least in the South, trace their roots to the arsenal of tools that white communities deployed to resist the desegregation mandate of the Brown ruling.”
One high-profile secession case was blocked last year, but many others went through
Advocates who oppose this behavior got a big win in 2018 when a federal court blocked an Alabama community from leaving its district.
In 2017, I wrote about a community called Gardendale, which took initial steps to leave the Jefferson County, Alabama, district. Gardendale is wealthier and much whiter than the rest of Jefferson County — but eight other communities had managed to secede from Jefferson County District, so Gardendale was just the next in line.
At first, it looked as if Gardendale would be able to make its own district. A district court judge, Madeline Haikala, said that even though Gardendale acted with the purpose of excluding black children, the new district could move forward. However, an appeals court said Haikala should not have allowed the secession to move forward, since the lines were being drawn with discriminatory intent.
And that intent wasn’t hard to find. Opponents of the move could merely search the Facebook page where Gardendale residents organized the secession. One of the organizers wrote that it would give them “better control over the geographic composition of the student body.” Another wrote, “A look around at our community sporting events, our churches are great snapshots of our community. A look into our schools, and you’ll see something totally different.”
But this secession was blocked because Jefferson County was under a federal desegregation order, which is why federal courts were able to have oversight. In other cases, there is far less scrutiny and legal leverage to halt this type of behavior.
Secession is another way of putting up legal fences
While Brown v. Board is the Supreme Court case that gets all the attention for integrating schools in 1954, there’s another case worth paying attention to.
In 1974, the Court ruled in Milliken v. Bradley that unless school district lines were drawn with racist intent, districts didn’t have to participate in any integration scheme. In other words, if you didn’t want to attend school with certain people in your district, you just needed to find a way to put a district line between you and them.
And that’s pretty much what white flight was. White families, who didn’t want their kids to attend school with black kids, moved out to the suburbs — and the government financed the construction of those white-only suburbs, as well as backing home loans for white people who wanted to live in those white-only neighborhoods.
With school district secession, it isn’t about moving to another place to get a district boundary between you and others.
Rather, it’s often about people with political and economic clout building that line — according to their conception of the community’s borders — and doing it under the guise of local control.
Correction: The original version of this article and the related map said 11 districts have seceded since 2000. The correct number is 10. EdBuild mistakenly counted an “ongoing” district — the Malibu School District — as “seceded.” Malibu is still currently still one district, and there have been no decisions thus far that carry any legal weight