SD Research Review: Secession in Memphis-Shelby County & the meaning of “local control”

This post is about a great piece of recent research on school resegregation. I want to talk about the content of the article itself as well as the value, more generally, of research that relies on interviews and media analysis to understand the current moment that we’re experiencing with race and schooling. I think this kind of research can tell us a lot about how things have changed, how things have stayed the same, and about how we might make progress in the future. More about this below.

Research that measures school resegregation numerically or statistically has made its way deep into public discussion. Many – even mainstream – media outlets cite research findings that schools in some parts of the country are as segregated as they were in the 1960s, for example. And, that’s great.  

Meanwhile, research that’s more qualitative (e.g., interviews, observations) is yet to approach this kind of impact. (See this piece for a much better, more holistic definition of qualitative research than I have the space for here.)  While statistical/quantitative studies can be relatively straightforward, it can be harder to describe the purpose of qualitative research for those who aren’t already on board. Qualitative research doesn’t “measure” as much as it documents lived experience or illuminates important aspects of the cultural context around the numbers. That can be harder to put into a quick headline. Perhaps as a result, it’s less common to find discussion of qualitative research in this field, which brings me to the specific piece I want to review here.

The article – The Disintegration of Memphis-Shelby County, Tennessee –  looks at an extremely important (and unfolding) issue: school district secession. It was published in one of the most highly regarded education research journals by three well-known researchers in this field – Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, Sarah Diem and Erica Frankenberg.

The background on Memphis-Shelby County is complicated, but here’s the most important thing to know: school district boundaries changed three times in three consecutive years. In 2012, Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools were two separate districts. Then, they merged to one large district in 2013. And, then, in 2014, the district splintered, as six small towns seceded to form their own districts. As in many other places, the seceding towns were whiter and wealthier than the district they left behind. There’s more detail in the article itself as well as here, here, and here for those who want to read more.

The article focuses on the 2014 secessions and basically asks: how did this happen? how did political figures justify the decision to secede? The researchers interviewed people who were involved in the decision or who were affected by it, including members of the county’s transition planning commission as well as school board members, school administrators, other education researchers and activists.

The main rationale? Local control. This is maybe not surprising, but I found it striking nonetheless: “Every white political leader representing the new municipal districts mentioned local control of public schools as the central rationale for secession.”

Their findings dig into the concept of local control, identifying the reasons that it has so much salience and reactions from others. Here are just a few selected findings:

  • They argue that the 2013 merger with Memphis aroused in white suburban leaders a kind of “resentment and fear related to resources, political power, and increased racial contact.” Part of this was that suburban leaders did not want to share resources or political decision making with city leaders. In the article, for example, one white leader is quoted as saying “we’re the ones that have the resources and therefore we have to bail the city out. We’re always having to bail the city out.”  
  • Black leaders were more likely than white leaders to say that the secessions were motivated by race. Here’s a great quote from one of the black leaders that were interviewed as part of the study: “A statement like, I don’t want the people who run the Memphis City Schools to be running my schools isn’t the same as I don’t want black people running my schools, but it is the same.”

In discussing the relevance of their findings, the authors connect the themes in the Memphis-Shelby County case to larger issues in school district secession. Here are two of the most salient topics for me:

  • Colorblind language – The paper argues that “local control, in short, became a favorable way to discuss the preservation and accumulation of resource advantages that mapped on to existing racial cleavages.” Of course, we saw exactly the same thing last week, in a North Carolina law that allows white towns essentially to secede (or, really, to wall themselves off) from Charlotte city schools. And, we see this all the time from Secretary DeVos.
  • Education as an individualized benefit – Importantly, the authors locate the local control argument “within a larger structure of reconceptualizing education as an individual good that allows individuals seeking local control for their communities to make decisions that impact many other communities beyond their own.” So, here’s another important theme that we see over and over again in school resegregation: the idea that quality education is a limited resource that must be approached – by parents, lawmakers, etc – as zero-sum competition. As an alternative, the authors note that “the Brown decision laid out broad social goals for public education, including its fundamental importance for democracy and citizenship.”

Again, these are just samples from the article. There’s much more in the piece, including race-conscious research and policy recommendations that I did not have the space to summarize here. There’s also a nice summary in a twitter thread from one of the authors. In all, the research thoroughly demonstrates that arguments about local control are really arguments about race – that the boundaries of what counts as “local” is racialized (e.g., not the city) and that the feeling of needing “control” itself is racialized (e.g., control over the continued accumulation of resources for white communities, or control over access to what is viewed as a limited, individualized, competitive resource).

To advance policy, you have to make an argument of some kind. It’s no longer acceptable to make an argument for secession that is explicitly about race. So, instead, secession advocates have to use coded language. This research defines that coded language in detail and provides the insight necessary not only to puncture holes in today’s prevailing arguments but to promote better arguments – and specific policy strategies – for a race-conscious approach to public education. I hope this will begin to catch on in public discussion as much as the startling statistics about how far we’ve fallen.

2 thoughts on “SD Research Review: Secession in Memphis-Shelby County & the meaning of “local control”

  1. Pingback: New name and logo! | School Diversity Notebook

  2. Pingback: Segregation, protest & a window for change: Model legislation from NCSD | School Diversity Notebook

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