The Gerrymandering of American School Districts: The Rise of School District Secession

What happens when a school district's borders are redrawn?

The rhetoric about immigration today has brought the concept of borders to the forefront of many Americans’ minds. Are these demarcations arbitrary or are they essential for protecting a nation’s character?

Even on a local level, the idea of borders is being called into question. One explanatory footnote from Election Day 2018 involves the failed secession attempt by an affluent section of a city in Georgia. Not only have city populations attempted to redraw municipal lines in recent years, but school districts around the country have also been facing these border questions as well.

While the public has become aware of the gerrymandering of political districts over the past few decades, the redrawing of school districts has been a consistent trend that has received less national attention even though the results can impact whole generations of residents.

A 2019 report from nonprofit EdBuild found that 128 communities nationwide have attempted to secede from their school districts since 2000, including over 20 in the past two years. These attempts, often through a ballot initiative, have been mostly successful, EdBuild found: 73 communities were successful in splitting up their school district, and an additional 17 efforts are ongoing. The researchers found that 27 attempts failed while another 11 have grown cold and become inactive.

According to EdBuild, these secession attempts are linked to the fact that most school district funding is raised via local property taxes. In a typical school district secession attempt, richer areas are trying to concentrate their property tax dollars within a new distinct district instead of spreading the money throughout a wider city or county.

Breaking up school districts along economic and racial lines raises significant concerns about equity, which has become a priority for superintendents around the country.

The legacy of ‘Brown v. Board of Education’

This is especially true because racial segregation in the public school system is now at its highest levels since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling in 1954 that ended legal segregation (although many public school systems remained segregated for years afterward). School integration peaked back in the 1980s, but a 1991 Supreme Court case defined school integration as a temporary solution, not a permanent obligation. 

Adding to the perniciousness is the fact that, back in 1954, racial segregation was the official law of the land — today, there is no blatantly obvious paper trail to point to.   

Even still, modern school district secession attempts are pretty clear-cut efforts to gerrymander districts along economic and racial lines.

“Once these lines are drawn, their effects are very real and long-lasting,” the EdBuild researchers noted, adding that “once a border exists, it marks a unit of government that others are bound to respect. As a result, district lines may divide students by race or class, and there is little that can be done. In this way, every line drawn is a new fracture in the map of American communities.”

There is a growing sense that, in the United States, zip code should not be the deciding factor in a person’s success. However, lessening the impact of location is going to take a concentrated effort on both the federal and local level.

Reducing inequity

Superintendents and communities seem to be willing to have these hard conversations about how school district borders impact student equity. Issues surrounding busing and school integration were center-stage at July’s Democratic debate.

Potential solutions are complex and vary district by district, but EdBuild suggests that leaders should look at ways to decouple district funding from property values.        

AASA states that school districts that bolster students’ equity in outcome are better positioning them for the future.

“AASA believes school leaders and school districts that overcome racial and economic isolation provide the best preparation for participation in America’s multi-ethnic society and the global society for which we are educating children,” the organization said in a statement. “School leaders have a moral and ethical responsibility to provide affirmative leadership and to advocate for integrated, high-quality schools. School leaders must work with other organizations and agencies to promote economic security and full social participation.”

The increase in school segregation suggests that even school district borders are not a mere cartographical issue, but a moral one. 

At the National Conference on Education 2020, AASA — The School Superintendents Association, will host workshops and seminars around school district boundaries, where you can hear first-hand from superintendents already navigating this challenging pathway. 

For more information and to register for the 2020 National Conference on Education, February 13 to 15, visit http://nce.aasa.org.