By James Cadogan, Director of the Thurgood Marshall Institute, and Monique Lin-Luse, Assistant Counsel at LDF
There’s a troubling but little-known trend in American public education that, in many cases, threatens to undo efforts to desegregate our nation’s schools: school secession. Simply put, school secession is when a community attempts to split from its local school district. Last week, the nonprofit group EdBuild released an eye-opening report detailing the breadth and effects of school secession efforts around the country. While recent attempts may seem like a relatively new phenomenon, their purpose is all too familiar and will have ruinous results for schoolchildren.
Below are five facts about this disturbing and destructive trend:
1. Secession isn’t about “Freedom” or “Choice” — it’s about race.
School secession is usually proposed in the language of “freedom” or “choice,” but bids for separation almost always involve wealthier, whiter enclaves trying to separate from more diverse school districts. Just consider our case in Gardendale, Alabama. Gardendale is part of the Jefferson County School District, which in 2010 built a state-of-the-art $51 million high school in Gardendale — a school paid for by all of the county’s residents, and intended for all of the county’s students.
But in 2014, Gardendale — an affluent and largely white municipality — created its own Board of Education and announced its intention to separate from the Jefferson County School District, claiming the new school as its own and leaving Jefferson County students with older and less integrated schools. The mayor of Gardendale barely sought to conceal his city’s reasons for separation, saying it was about “keeping our tax dollars here with our kids, rather than sharing them with kids all over Jefferson County.”
2. Secession often worsens segregation.
A separate Gardendale School system would be an island of segregation, with a far smaller proportion of low-income students than Beverly Hills School District in California. Likewise, students of color would only make up 22% of the separate district’s student population, compared to 55% for the surrounding county system left behind. The mayor’s language makes clear that when he thinks of “our kids,” he doesn’t think of the Black children of Jefferson County, an attitude sadly reflective of the small-mindedness underlying most secession attempts.
3. Secession leaves children of color in under-resourced schools.
Where secession succeeds, economic divides deepen, racial segregation worsens, and children of color are often consigned to under-resourced schools where they are less likely to succeed. Secession causes an ineffective use of state taxpayer dollars by creating redundant bureaucracies to manage the new, smaller school districts. According to EdBuild, Americans dole out over $3,200 more on students in small school districts (defined as areas serving fewer than 3,000 students) than the peers they left behind in larger systems (defined as areas serving 25,000–49,999). The high overhead associated with running a school district means that small systems spend about 60% more on administrative costs per-student than large systems.
4. Secession attempts are on the rise.
EdBuild’s report suggests 71 communities have attempted to secede since 2000; 47 of them have been successful, and nine are ongoing. Federal courts in the 1960s and early 1970s used to proactively stop secession efforts based on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. For example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in the 1971 case Lee v. Macon City Board of Education that “[a] city cannot secede from the county where the effect — to say nothing of the purpose — of secession has a substantial adverse effect on desegregation of the county school district.” However, a 1974 Supreme Court ruling in Milliken v. Bradley opened the door to school secession by prioritizing “local control” over all other considerations.
5. Secession is far too easy with too few checks on its effects.
School secession is legal in most states. Of the 30 states with laws on the books allowing secession, only six states require consideration of racial or socioeconomic factors, and only nine must consider secession’s effects on a district’s funding.
We’re fighting back against this trend by challenging school secession efforts in Gardendale. Under Alabama law, Gardendale would have been able to easily secede from the Jefferson County School District if it weren’t for the area’s troubled racial history. We have been involved in a federal desegregation case in Jefferson County for more than 50 years; when Gardendale made known its plan to secede, we joined local counsel, retired federal Judge U.W. Clemon, in suing the city in federal court, arguing that the city’s plan would undermine the county’s long struggle to desegregate its schools. In April, a federal judge ruled that Gardendale’s secession plan was intentionally discriminatory. But the judge also said that Gardendale can form its own school district in three years if it can prove its ability to run a desegregated district.
We are appealing this ruling because this school secession serves only to ensure that white families do not have to help fund the education of Black students; this is plainly contrary to the values of American democracy and antithetical to the notion of a pluralistic society. Secession may appear more benign than the segregation that existed before Brown v. Board, but too often it is just another instance of discrimination made possible through the action (or inaction) of state and local governments. It’s past time for public officials to fulfill their responsibility to ensure that our children — all of them — have an equal opportunity to learn together.