Researchers have found a link between wealthy communities that form their own school districts and racial segregation in education.
THE PHENOMENON IN WHICH wealthy communities take their schools and their tax base and splinter off from larger districts to form their own education systems is promoting racial segregation, according to a first-of-its-kind study published Wednesday.
Since 2000, school district secessions in the South have increasingly filtered white and black students, and white and Hispanic students, into separate school systems, according to new research published in "AERA Open," a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.
"Secession may reflect this narrowing concept of public schools and who the public schools are for," Erica Frankenberg, a professor of education and demography at Pennsylvania State University and coauthor of the study, says. "Are they for educating everyone, or just kids who look like my kids?"
In analyzing the impact of 18 school district secessions that occurred in seven southern counties between 2000 and 2015, researchers found that school district boundaries accounted for, on average, 58% of multiracial school segregation in 2000, a figure that ballooned to 64% percent by 2015.
"The implications of this trend profound," Frankenberg says.
The rise in school district secessions was first unearthed by EdBuild in a 2017 report that found that at least 47 communities had broken away from their larger, more diverse and poorer school districts since 2000, taking with them millions of dollars in property taxes.
A legislative analysis included in the report showed that 30 states have a process in place that allows districts to secede. Of those, only 17 states require consideration be given to the secession's impact on students and only six require consideration be given to the impact on socioeconomic factors and diversity. Moreover, only nine states require a study of the potential fiscal impact to the district that will be "left behind."
The new report from AERA is the first to explore whether, and to what extent, new school district boundaries segregate students and residents. To do so, researchers compared how much overall school segregation was the result of segregation between districts versus segregation between individual schools within districts. The study confirmed what the EdBuild report anecdotally reported, namely, that school district secessions resulted in splinter districts with higher percentages of white students compared to the districts left behind, which had higher percentages of black and Hispanic students.
"I think it's important for us to really consider the effect of creating these political boundaries, which is what the creation of new school districts are, and then the way it may impede long-term what we're able to do to address segregation," Frankenberg says. "This is really important."
Using a formula designed to measure the contribution of district boundaries to school and residential segregation, researchers found that school district boundaries accounted for, on average, 60% of the school segregation for black and white students in 2000 – a figure that increased to 70% in 2015. For Hispanic and white students, the impact of school district boundaries increased at a much more significant rate, accounting for, on average, 37% of segregation in 2000 and 65% percent in 2015.
Researchers also found that in 2000, the communities that seceded and formed their own school districts were, on average, 33% less diverse for black and white students than the county they were in, but by 2015 that figure had increased to 38%. Much larger increases occurred for Hispanic and white students as well as Asian and white students.
"We have a majority nonwhite public school enrollment, so there is a little bit more demographic urgency to try to figure this out," Frankenberg says.
The researchers found that school district boundaries contributed "substantially" to residential segregation of the county population in the three counties with the longest history of school district secession, including among residents without children in public schools. But on average, the creation of new district boundaries was not associated with a rise in residential segregation in the other four counties.
The findings are notable, Frankenberg says, because school districts in the South are generally the most desegregated in the country, and especially compared to states in the North, thanks to the fact that they're much larger and most of their boundaries mirror county boundaries. In Connecticut and Massachusetts, for example, most towns are their own school districts, which has exacerbated school segregation.
"It's hard not to wonder, particularly given the black-white trends we found, is that registering and in some way influencing the movement toward secession," she says. "It's nothing we're able to causally show, but that context was really eye opening to us as researchers."