This guest post is written by Alexandra Cooperstock, a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Cornell University. Her research focuses on the intersection of neighborhoods, schools, and policy for shaping inequality and educational opportunity. Originally published in the Social Forces journal, this post is a summary of research about school district secession in the United States. Previous posts at SD Notebook have covered the impact of secession on demographics in the original and seceding district, the massively influential EdBuild report on this topic (referenced below), and model legislation for new regulations on secession efforts.
This post adds to the existing work by identifying specific factors (statistically significant factors!) associated with secession attempts. It’s particularly important to understand the nuances of all this, as the issue is debated at the state and federal level. For example, a very recent House Appropriations bill encourages the Department of Education to issue a report on secession efforts and their impact on school segregation. It’s one of many threats to school integration that will maybe/hopefully fade under increased sunlight.
School segregation remains entrenched across the United States despite substantial integration efforts made following the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) judicial decision. The racial composition of schools is tied to broader opportunity gaps—often cited as a mechanism explaining inequality in educational outcomes—necessitating further research on school segregation.
An understudied lever in school segregation is school district secession, an example of fragmentation and a formal withdrawal from an existing school district. School district boundary lines can be drawn and redrawn in a myriad of ways for a wide range of reasons. However, research has shown that fragmentation is associated with high levels of racial segregation across school districts. Secessions may weaken the legacy of the Brown decision by posing a threat to integration, especially if the schools attempting to secede are more racially homogenous than the school districts from which they are withdrawing. And indeed, the coverage from various news outlets frames school district secession as a race-conscious process yielding racial and economic consequences. Yet secession is not a monolithic tool, and it may be used for different purposes depending on context.
Figure 1. School District Secession Geographic Boundaries
Note: School districts within Alabama are presented; Shelby County School District and the seceded Alabaster City School District are enlarged.
This study examines if, and how, school district secession is implicated in school district inequalities using national data from 2000-2019. I explore two primary research questions:
- What compositional characteristics of a community are predictive of a school district secession attempt?
- How do school districts differ before and after a successful secession, and do these changes persist?
School District Secession Attempts
I obtained a list of school districts that attempted to secede, successfully or unsuccessfully, from EdBuild. One hundred twenty-eight secession attempts have been made within twenty-six states between 2000 and 2019, of which seventy-three have been successful in creating new school district boundaries through this process.
Figure 2. Variation in State-Level School District Secession Provisions
To explore the compositional characteristics predictive of a school district secession attempt, I create a measure of social imbalance and leverage the variation between places attempting a secession and the school districts they are nested within. School district secession is not a random event, and one aim of this project is to understand the factors which shape selection—including racial/ethnic diversity, economic disparity, educational attainment, and state and regional variation.
On average, places attempting a secession had a larger share of white children and non-poor children than the school districts that they are situated in, compared to places that did not attempt a secession. However, places that contain all of the white children and non-poor children within a school district are not consistently attempting a secession, suggesting the salience of other place-level factors in predicting a school district secession. Places that attempt a secession have a higher share of residents with a college degree, the average median household income is greater, and private school enrollment rates higher, whereas the percent unemployed is lower. These average differences are apparent for the full U.S. sample and for places in non-Southern states, although they are most extreme in the South. This suggests that places attempting a secession have a higher aggregate socioeconomic status compared to their counterparts that do not, especially in the South.
Results from logistic regression analyses indicate that places with a larger share of white children and non-poor children, compared to the school districts they are situated in, have an increased odds of a school district secession attempt. However, the strongest predictors of a secession attempt are the state-level legal context and the percentage of the population with a college degree, highlighting one way that highly educated people may be acting like a unique status group to hoard opportunities.
Successful School District Secessions
School districts successfully created through secession cleave onto racial and economic divides for both the residential and student populations, driven by secessions located in the South. The patterns that arose immediately following a successful secession appear to persist over time, at least in the medium-term. For example, seceded districts have a larger share of white students, and a smaller share of black students, then the parent districts left behind on average. However, these mean differences are only statistically significant for the secessions that occurred in Southern states.
Figure 3. Mean Percentage of White and Black Students within School District Boundaries
Non-white students are usually the focus of school segregation discussions. But failing to examine the causes and consequences of white-student segregation leads to a conceptualization that these contexts occur passively and inadvertently rather than actively and intentionally. The history of resistance to integration colors the active secession efforts clustered in the South while the piecemeal arrangement of school districts elsewhere are perceived to be race-neutral. In a post Jim Crow society with faltering legal protections, school district secessions may be providing a path to create splintered school district systems. While each approach differs in its timing and tempo, both produce structural barriers to integration, creating divergent access to resources and opportunities.
School district secession processes embody the many ways school segregation is produced and perpetuated, including micro-level school and neighborhood selection decisions, jurisdictional restructuring of district boundaries, and the national and state-level legal landscape. A belief in broad societal and economic benefits was foundational to the creation and expansion of the public-school system in the United States and public education is vital to the health and well-being of American democracy. Public school systems remain a beacon, one social institution that provides meaningful opportunities to pursue integration. However, school district secession may work to close off this avenue. If schools are one of our last integration frontiers, secession and its potential to continue expanding in scope and consequence, may be problematic.