Study Shows Rise in Southern Segregation Through Redrawn School Districts

A newly published study in AERA Open, the journal of the American Education Research Association, revealed that new school districts in the South are contributing to the segregation of white students from Black and Latinx students.

From 2000 to 2017, seven counties across the South — particularly in Alabama, Louisiana, and Tennessee — created 18 new school districts. The study’s authors claim the creation and the redrafting of these district boundaries are linked to a pattern of “secession” — smaller districts seceding from larger ones..

“Our findings show that after district secessions, students are increasingly being sorted into different school districts by race,” co-author Erica Frankenberg, a professor of education and demography at Pennsylvania State University, said in a statement.

Frankenberg continued, “Given the relative scarcity of students crossing district lines, the implications of this trend are profound. School segregation is becoming more entrenched, with potential long-term effects for residential integration patterns as well.”

Frankenberg told the Associated Press (AP) that in 1974 the US Supreme Court ruled courts could not order desegregation across district lines. An individual district can work to integrate students, but those efforts end at a district’s boundaries, according to the ruling. Frankenberg’s study found that rising segregation between white and Black students was mostly due to district lines rather than specific schools within a district.

In 2000, School district boundaries on average accounted for 57.7 percent of multiracial school segregation. By 2015, this jumped to 63.8 percent. School district boundaries in 2000 contributed to an average of 59.9 percent of Black and white student segregation, the study found. In 2015, that number rose to 70.3 percent.

The increase was consistent with the school segregation of Hispanic and white students, which rose from 37.1 percent in 2000 to 65.1 percent in 2015.

The 18 new school districts across the seven counties in the South reported higher percentages of white student enrollment than the former school districts. Meanwhile, the older “left behind” districts reported having higher percentages of Black and Hispanic students.

“This means that within each school district, there was less racial diversity, and therefore racial sorting between schools within one district became relatively less important to overall segregation,” Frankenberg explained in a statement. “Instead, racial sorting between school districts has become more important.”

This was particularly true in Alabama when Pike Road High School pulled out of the Montgomery County School District. According to the AP, the 2015 move left Montgomery County more heavily African American than it was before the split.

Though Pike Road’s student demographic roughly reflects the diversity of schools statewide, the study found that it is still contributing to segregation in the larger system. The number of white students in Montgomery County schools, where Pike Road students used to attend, dropped significantly, the AP reported.

Before Pike Road seceded in 2015, Park Crossing High School was 17 percent white. In 2018, it dropped to 5 percent. Meanwhile, Blount Elementary School was 47 percent white but fell to 37 percent in 2018.

The study further found that school districts in 2000 were, “on average, 32.9 percent less diverse for Black and white students than the county they were in.” Those school districts became even less diverse in 2015, on average, about 37.7 percent.

Those figures were even greater when analyzing the diversity between Hispanic and white students or Asian and white students. School districts in 2000 were about 9.2 percent less diverse for white and Hispanic students, but that grew to 23.9 percent in 2015.

“If this trend continues, students of color increasingly will be sorted into schools with fewer resources, segregation will become more ingrained, and all students will have fewer opportunities to experience the educational benefits of a diverse learning environment,” Frankenberg said.

Frankenberg added that the short- and long-term effect of school secessions should be carefully analyzed. “Specifically, policymakers should consider whether to implement more thorough review systems that consider the potential impact on county-level segregation before secessions are allowed to occur.”

The study’s authors noted that these secessions typically happen in large Southern school systems that already have lower populations of white students.

“It’s hard not to look at many of these instances of secession and see them as a modern-day effort by Southern whites to avoid diverse schools,” Virginia Commonwealth University professor and co-author Genevieve Siegel-Hawley said in a statement.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.