For the last several decades, schools in Memphis, Tennessee, have been locked in a battle with their suburban neighbors over education funding. When many of the city's wealthy, white families fled to the surrounding suburbs of Shelby County (and a separate school district) in the 1970s, the two districts nonetheless continued to share revenues from a countywide property tax. In 2010, when Republicans gained control of the Tennessee state legislature, the Memphis School Board—concerned that the legislature would finally grant Shelby County its long-held wish to send less of the suburbs' tax dollars to the Memphis school district—controversially voted to dissolve the urban school district and place the city's schools in the control of the Shelby County School Board.
A few years later, in response to demands from wealthy Shelby County voters, the Tennessee state legislature voted to overturn the state's ban on the formation of new school districts and replace it with a much more permissive approach to secession. With the ban overturned, six Shelby County communities promptly seceded and formed their own school districts. The average student poverty rate in the newly formed districts is 11 percent, dramatically lower than the 33 percent rate in the now much-diminished Shelby County district. In one year, Shelby County's school district budget was cut by 20 percent. Seven Memphis schools closed in the 2014–15 school year, and the district laid off 500 teachers in 2015 and 2016.
The Shelby County story is perhaps unique in the degree to which the Tennessee state legislature was willing to accommodate wealthy suburban constituents. But a new report from EdBuild, a non-profit research organization that studies school funding issues, makes clear that secessions are happening all over the country. Since 2000, 71 communities have attempted to secede from their school districts. Forty-seven of those communities succeeded in forming new districts, and an additional nine school districts around the country are currently pursuing secession.
The vast majority of these cases follow a familiar narrative: a wealthy, predominately white enclave pursuing secession from a poorer, minority-dominated district on the grounds of wanting "local control." Often, these stories play out in areas with ugly histories of segregation. Most recently, the secession efforts of the city of Gardendale, Alabama, which lies outside of Birmingham, have drawn national attention. Last April, a federal district court judge ruled that the secession could continue (it's currently on hold while the appeals process plays out) but was scathing in her assessment of the motives of Gardendale residents, writing that the decision was racially motivated and sent messages that "assail the dignity of black schoolchildren."
"When schools start to become underfunded from the states, there's an incentive to withdraw and create micro-communities to hold on to wealth."
Rebecca Sibilia, the chief executive officer and founder of EdBuild, says it's difficult to say if the activity since 2000 represents a long-term increase in the number of districts considering secession but points out that activity was consistent throughout the study. She says there's also been a rash of activity in recent years, which she suggests may be driven by economic conditions.
"There are incentives to keep locally governed, locally raised property taxes local ... and when schools start to become underfunded from the states, there's an incentive to withdraw and create micro-communities to hold on to wealth," she explains. "In 2008–09, states started to fall into deep recessions and state funding for schools started to fall significantly. And 2010 is when a lot of communities started to contemplate this. I don't think it's coincidental that they [secessions] pick up when states started to fall into a fiscal crunch."
Of course, not every state makes it easy for school districts to secede. Two states—Georgia and Florida—essentially forbid the creation of new school districts. Other states allow secession, but place various restrictions on the formation of new districts. Twenty states require approval from a state agency of any secession plans. In six states, state agencies are specifically required to review the effects of secession on racial or socioeconomic factors; nine states require the effects on funding inequities to be considered as well. And a few states require voters in both the proposed district and the existing one to approve secession.
The United States' school funding system, with its reliance on local property taxes, is full of perverse incentives that make it exceedingly difficult for low-income school districts to obtain the kind of resources they need to educate students who are often already disadvantaged by their circumstances. Given those incentives, regulations governing the formation of new districts are a crucial part of protecting disadvantaged students.
But in an era of soaring inequality, it's also worth pausing to consider whether more states should adopt policies like those of Georgia and Florida. Rhetoric about "local control" aside, what secession seems to most often represent is a desire of better-off families to ensure that their tax dollars go only to the education of their children. Such a desire, however, is not what public education, or really any public good, is about.
"We have a unique opportunity during children's earliest years to teach them what our country could and should be," the report concludes. "We are deluding ourselves if we believe that we can maintain a fair and inclusive culture without putting in the collective effort to support the education of our most vulnerable students."
As the report from EdBuild points out, citizens aren't permitted to withhold taxes for sidewalks they don't walk on, a Medicare program they don't use, or a foreign policy they object to. Allowing wealthy communities to separate themselves, and withhold resources, from poorer school districts, marks a betrayal of the beliefs upon which the country's public schools were built.