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Does School District Secession Accelerate School Segregation?

Racial Segregation in the Southern Schools, School Districts, and Counties Where Districts Have Seceded
Kendra Taylor, Erica Frankenberg, and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley
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School district secession happens when a smaller school district breaks off from a larger district, often to achieve greater control over funding and school resources. Seceded districts often have larger shares of white families and are more affluent than the district they seceded from. To explore how much secession increases school and neighborhood segregation, this study analyzed seven counties in the South. The authors focused on the South because southern school districts are commonly larger, countywide districts that previously experienced declining segregation between Black and white students within districts.

From 2000 to 2017, 47 school districts seceded within 13 counties, 7 of which are in the South. For each county, the authors examine changes in segregation among students within and between school districts and changes in residential segregation among all residents within and between school districts for 2000, 2010, and 2015. The study used block group–level census data, school-level demographic data from the Common Core of Data, and TIGER/Line geographic data over time.

The authors used a measure of segregation that reflects the diversity of subareas compared with a larger area. A low value of this measure within a school district indicates students are evenly sorted among schools, and a high value indicates students are unevenly sorted. The measure also reflects how much a subarea contributes to the overall segregation of the larger area. For example, a segregation measure of .25 at the school district level means the school district is 25 percent less diverse than the county.

Key findings
  • School district secession occurred in counties that were more racially diverse than the southern region as a whole.
  • In 2000, segregation between school districts accounted for 60 percent of Black-white school segregation and 37 percent of Latinx-white school segregation. By 2015, this proportion had increased to 70 percent and 65 percent, respectively.
  • From 2000 to 2015, segregation between school districts had relatively little effect on Black-white and Latinx-white residential segregation, on average.
  • Counties that contained several new school districts and experienced secession earlier during the study had higher levels of residential segregation between school districts. This suggests residential segregation following a school secession may increase over time.
  • From 2000 to 2015, Black-white and Latinx-white segregation within school districts decreased, but Black-white and Latinx-white segregation between school districts increased.
Policy implications
  • The authors argue that school districts secessions allow communities to resist and reverse public school desegregation efforts in the South.
  • If state policymakers wish to reduce secession’s impact on segregation, they could consider revisiting state laws and policies that determine how easy secession is for school districts.
  • To monitor and prevent secessions that increase segregation, the federal government could review secessions before they occur and determine whether the secession might violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.