A new secessionist movement, anchored in the South, provides yet another reminder that “separate” still means “unequal” when it comes to the racial dynamics of the nation’s public schools.
The small middle-class town of Gardendale, Alabama, outside Birmingham, voted on November 12 to secede from the Jefferson County school district and then to raise taxes on themselves to finance the solo venture. Then, in March, Gardendale’s 14,000 residents finally got their own Board of Education. Soon after his appointment, one new board member, Clayton “Dick” Lee III, a banker and father of two, said he aspires to build a “best in class” school system “which exceeds the capabilities of the system which we are exiting.”
As Gardendale officials try to construct that “best in class” system in their prosperous community, they’ve relied on advice from their neighbors to the east in Trussville, a wealthy white suburb that broke away from the county schools in 2005. Gardendale, where about 86 percent of residents are white, is the fourth district since the late 1980s to secede from Jefferson County’s schools. About half the students in Jefferson County’s schools are either African-American or Latino, and 57 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch, the standard marker for poverty in public education.
With 36,000 students, Jefferson County’s shrinking catchment area is emblematic of a new secessionism in which cities, towns, even unincorporated areas renounce membership in a larger school district to strike out on their own. A trend befitting our individualistic times, secessionism, in many cases, cracks apart well-established, broadly defined educational communities into ever more narrow and ever more racially homogeneous ones. Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, new break away districts threaten to exacerbate resource disparities between wealthy and poor communities and sweep away any remnants of desegregation.
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an organized group of residents from an unincorporated, predominantly white, relatively affluent area with a strong tax base are trying to form an entirely new eighty-five-square-mile city for the express purpose of separating from the East Baton Rouge Parish Schools, which, by the way, enroll a majority of black and economically disadvantaged students. At the same time, a bill that would create four semi-autonomous school districts in this same southern section of Baton Rouge is being considered by the Louisiana legislature. The proposed new city, St. George, would not be the first secession from East Baton Rouge Parish schools. In recent years, three municipalities have created their own school districts, though not all were particularly affluent or predominantly white.
Next fall, the rapidly growing, predominantly white Alabama community Pike Road, with only 6,500 residents, will open its first K-8 school post-divorce from Montgomery County Public Schools, where 83 percent of its some 32,000 students are either African-American or Latino and 76 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch. Since the mid-2000s, six suburban, predominantly white unincorporated areas outside Atlanta incorporated and became cities. A bill being debated in Georgia’s legislature would amend the state constitution to give the new municipalities authority to secede from county school districts to create their own systems.