The judge was blunt: Although parents in a suburban Alabama community argued that their desire to secede from their county school district centered on local control, race was undeniably a motivating factor.
Gardendale, a Birmingham suburb composed of predominantly middle-class white residents, had been pushing for years to secede from the predominantly black Jefferson County school district. Proponents argued that the move would give local residents greater say over education decisions and how their tax dollars are spent — or, as the mayor told The Washington Post, to keep “our tax dollars here with our kids, rather than sharing them with kids all over Jefferson County.”
In an April decision, in which District Court Judge Madeline Haikala found that social media posts illustrated “a desire to control the racial demographics” in Gardendale schools, she ruled that the suburban residents could move forward with their secession plans and begin to form their own school district. Last month, the judge stayed her own decision after both the plaintiffs and the Gardendale Board of Education said they intended to appeal.
The Alabama fight has gained national attention as it progresses through the courts, in part because the Jefferson County district has been under a federal desegregation order since the 1960s. Yet secession attempts have gained popularity in communities across the country in recent years, according to a new report released Wednesday by EdBuild, a nonprofit that advocates for education funding equity.
Since 2000, at least 71 communities nationwide have attempted to withdraw from their school district, and 47 have been successful, according to the group’s analysis. Residents in nine additional communities are pursuing a similar separation. These efforts, the report notes, often create bastions of wealth, leaving behind districts with high poverty and poor funding.
Property taxes, the primary source for local education dollars, play a large role in incentivizing secession efforts, said Rebecca Sibilia, EdBuild’s founder and CEO. For example, Ohio’s Monroe Local School District was created in 2000 after a secession effort from the Middletown City School District. In 2015, the median property value in the Monroe Local district was $159,200 — more than 70 percent higher than in neighboring Middletown.
“We can’t forget that education is a public good, and it’s the public’s responsibility to see all of our kids as our own,” Sibilia said. “The notion of opting out of the common good is one that is almost unique to education. People don’t get to say that they’re not going to pay into Medicare simply because they don’t have anyone they know who is on Medicare support.”
Generally pursued through the guise of local control, secession efforts further cement school segregation along racial and socioeconomic lines and often exacerbate inequalities between low- and high-income schools, the report found. After decades of increased integration following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, research has pointed to growth in segregation in recent years, both racially and socioeconomically.
“What’s amazing is that it’s intentional discrimination in 2017,” said Monique Lin-Luse, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund who represents black plaintiffs in the Gardendale case. “This isn’t about something from long ago in the past — these are state actors, today, who are seeking to secede and to do so on a racial basis.”
In its analysis, EdBuild found 30 states with laws that allow communities to secede from their school districts. Yet only six states require policymakers to consider how the move would affect racial and socioeconomic demographics in the district, and only nine states require a study of the financial impacts of splitting communities. Of states with laws allowing secession, approval processes differ: Some require a majority vote among neighborhood members, while legislative approval is necessary in others.
In Alabama, state law allows cities with more than 5,000 residents to establish their own independent school districts. In Florida and Georgia, state laws prohibit secessions, according to the report.
“Legislatures are complicit and sometimes actively enabling these things to happen,” Sibilia said. “There are states that are going backward in allowing communities to just segregate themselves either along socioeconomic or race lines without having any meaningful check on whether or not that’s going to have a negative effect on the students who will be left behind.”
The EdBuild secession study is part of a series examining disparities among bordering school districts. Last year, the nonprofit released a report identifying the most segregated school district borders in the country; Detroit and suburban Grosse Pointe topped the list. And while the new EdBuild report addresses the ongoing secession efforts in Alabama, it was a controversy in Memphis that drew the nonprofit to the issue, Sibilia said.
In 2014, six Memphis suburbs, consisting primarily of white and wealthy families, broke off from the financially drained Shelby County school district, just four years after the Memphis district disbanded and was absorbed into the county district.
Although the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown helped incentivize the formation of smaller school districts to dodge integration efforts, Sibilia said, the importance of school district lines was really cemented two decades later. In Milliken v. Bradley in 1974, the Supreme Court barred states from imposing desegregation plans across school district boundaries.
“Milliken was a death knell to the kinds of school desegregation that we’d previously seen, essentially because of white flight, whites fleeing the urban areas and moving out to the suburbs and creating their own districts,” said Erika Wilson, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, who in 2016 released a report highlighting the prevalence of school secession efforts in the South.
In her report, Wilson noted that while secession efforts occur across the country, those in the South raise unique fairness and equity concerns because they exist against a backdrop of state-mandated segregation and attempts to skirt court-ordered desegregation. She said that as Southern districts reach unitary status, meaning they no longer have to comply with desegregation orders, they’re increasingly turning to secession.
Though the Gardendale decision could change following appeal, Lin-Luse said she worries the Circuit Court outcome could encourage other communities to launch their own secession campaigns.
“It sends a signal to other cities that there aren’t really any barriers to separating, even if you’re found to have had this negative impact on the county system that you’re separating from,” Lin-Luse said. “Also, even if you’re having a negative impact and you’ve been found to have intentionally discriminated, if that’s not a city that can be stopped from seceding, then who will be stopped from seceding?”