Study: School District Secessions in the South Have Deepened Racial Segregation between School Systems
Study: School District Secessions in the South Have Deepened Racial Segregation between School Systems

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Study: School District Secessions in the South Have Deepened Racial Segregation between School Systems 

WASHINGTON, D.C., September 4, 2019—Since 2000, school district secessions in the South have increasingly sorted white and black students, and white and Hispanic students, into separate school systems, weakening the potential to improve school integration, according to a new study published today in AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

The study, conducted by Kendra Taylor (Sanametrix), Erica Frankenberg (Pennsylvania State University), and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley (Virginia Commonwealth University), is the first to systemically explore whether, and to what extent, new school district boundaries segregate students and residents in those counties in the South where school district secessions have taken place.

From 2000 to 2017, 47 school districts in the United States successfully seceded from a larger school district. These secessions have occurred in 13 counties across the U.S., seven of which are in the South. During this time period, 18 new school districts formed in these seven counties in the South. The authors analyzed trends in school and residential segregation during 2000–2015 for the seven Southern counties.

In the counties studied by the authors, the proportion of school segregation due to school district boundaries has increased. That has been especially true since 2010, when three of the seven counties first experienced district secession. In other words, after school district secession, district boundaries played a larger role in school segregation at the county level.

“Our findings show that after district secessions, students are increasingly being sorted into different school districts by race,” said study coauthor Erica Frankenberg, a professor of education and demography at Pennsylvania State University. “Given the relative scarcity of students crossing district lines, the implications of this trend are profound. School segregation is becoming more entrenched, with potential long-term effects for residential integration patterns as well.”

The authors examined racial segregation, at the school level and residential level, in the seven Southern counties where school district secessions occurred during 2000–2015: Jefferson, Marshall, Mobile, Montgomery, and Shelby counties in Alabama; East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana; and Shelby County, Tennessee. They compared how much of overall school segregation was the result of segregation between districts versus segregation between the individual schools within districts.

In 2000, school district boundaries accounted for, on average, 57.7 percent of multiracial school segregation, a figure that grew to 63.8 percent by 2015. In 2000, school district boundaries contributed, on average, to 59.9 percent of the school segregation for black and white students; that number increased to 70.3 percent in 2015. For Hispanic and white students, the number increased from 37.1 percent in 2000 to 65.1 percent in 2015.

School district secession in the seven Southern counties has resulted in splinter districts that typically report higher percentages of white students enrolled in them than is the case in most of the “left-behind” county districts. In turn, most “left behind” districts had a higher percentage of black and Hispanic students.

“This means that within each school district, there was less racial diversity, and therefore racial sorting between schools within one district became relatively less important to overall segregation,” said Frankenberg. “Instead, racial sorting between school districts has become more important.”

The authors found that in 2000, school districts were, on average, 32.9 percent less diverse for black and white students than the county they were in, but by 2015, this figure had increased to 37.7 percent. Much larger increases occurred for Hispanic and white students as well as Asian and white students. For example, in 2000, school districts were, on average, 9.2 percent less diverse for white and Hispanic students; by 2015, this figure had increased to 23.9 percent.

“The bottom line is that school segregation has remained persistently high and school boundaries are accounting for an increasing share of the existing segregation,” said Frankenberg. “If this trend continues, students of color increasingly will be sorted into schools with fewer resources, segregation will become more ingrained, and all students will have fewer opportunities to experience the educational benefits of a diverse learning environment.”   

The authors found that secession has occurred in large Southern school systems that have substantially lower shares of white students—roughly 33 percent white on average—than are typical of Southern schools overall—43 percent—“suggesting that racial threat and competition may be at work,” said Frankenberg.

“It’s hard not to look at many of these instances of secession and see them as a modern-day effort by Southern whites to avoid diverse schools,” said Siegel-Hawley, an associate professor of educational leadership, policy, and justice at Virginia Commonwealth University. “This is especially true given the obstacles to comprehensive cross-district integration policies.”

“The short- and long-term effects of secession need to be thoroughly considered and evaluated by the public and policymakers,” Frankenberg said. “Specifically, policymakers should consider whether to implement more thorough review systems that consider the potential impact on county-level segregation before secessions are allowed to occur.”  

The study found that, on average, the creation of new district boundaries was not associated with a rise in residential segregation, at least in the short term. However, in the three counties experiencing a long history of school district secession, the authors found that school district boundaries did contribute substantially to residential segregation of the county population, including among residents without children in public schools.

“Although the link between school and residential segregation in Southern communities impacted by secession is less clear-cut in the short term, trends in places with long-standing secession experience suggest that neighborhoods will become more divided along with their schools,” said coauthor Kendra Taylor, senior research analyst at Sanametrix.


About AERA
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Author Video

Watch as study co-author Erica Frankenberg discusses the findings and implications of this important study.