What school district are you in right now?
It shouldn’t be a trick question. But for many students, it’s not as simple as checking the map.
The map is changing around students as influential adults — usually in wealthy, largely white communities — redraw borders to suit themselves. And state laws let them do it. Even, in most cases, if they’re leaving needy students behind.
EdBuild first drew attention to this phenomenon in 2017 with Fractured, a report about school district secessions. Because schools are funded in large part with local property taxes, affluent communities around the country have reason to withdraw from their school systems and create new districts (and taxing jurisdictions). This allows them to keep their dollars in and needy kids out.
In a 2019 update to this report, we find that this trend is accelerating. At least 128 enclaves have tried to break away from their school districts since 2000. Seventy-four of these have been successful — eleven of which have happened in just the last two years. These new secessions range from Southern California to the northeastern edge of Maine. Last month, Gulf Shores, Alabama, finalized its withdrawal from Baldwin County School District.
This was enabled by Alabama’s very permissive laws. While 30 states have statutory paths to school district secession, Alabama’s is among the easiest: Any city with 5,000 people can form a new district, with no regard for what happens to the kids and classrooms left behind. It’s no wonder that Gulf Shores was the 10th secession in Alabama since 2000 — evidence of the state’s clear failure to look out for its students.
Even more worrying is that some states are making it easier for these enclaves to close themselves off. In 2018, Indiana regulated away part of the legal process, review and approval by a county committee, to allow most secessions to start at the local level and skip straight to State Board review. And North Carolina, which technically offers no way for districts to secede, allowed four towns around Charlotte to achieve functionally the same thing. These suburbs have been permitted to create town-only schools that can be funded by dedicated municipal dollars — no sharing required with the county district.
When a state starts to allow secession, it can start a domino effect, with copycat communities starting new breakaway proceedings. In 2013, the Tennessee state legislature passed a law to permit six wealthy suburbs to secede from Shelby County Schools, which served the Memphis metropolitan area. A few years later, Signal Mountain, Tennessee, began pursuing a similar split from a city-serving county district: Hamilton County Schools, which contains Chattanooga. Representatives even visited the new Shelby County districts to see how it might go. Around the same time, two other towns also started secession proceedings, and a fourth and fifth have had rumblings as well.
The news isn’t all bad, though. When communities find out that this is happening, they can fight back. After our 2017 reported highlighted Signal Mountain, Hamilton County’s school board came out against the secession and engaged the community in public meetings. Shortly after, Signal Mountain formally abandoned the effort. Similarly, we identified an ongoing secession attempt in Northern California: The community of Northgate was trying to pull away from Mount Diablo Unified School District. A grassroots campaign protested the secession, and the county’s board of education voted to keep the district united. Though the fight continues (the state can overrule the county if it so chooses), the community has won a major victory against those seeking to fracture its district.
But it shouldn’t be up to local communities to keep this from happening. Every state guarantees a right to public schooling. It is the responsibility of states to honor that promise to their children by ensuring that the wealthy can’t pull their resources out of local school districts. The law in 30 states specifically provides a way for secessionists to leave needy kids behind. Worse, the property-tax-based school funding system in nearly every state gives them reason to do so.
This is something that only happens in education: No one gets to withhold their local tax dollars because they don’t want to use the neighborhood park, or keep their federal tax dollars until they’re covered by Medicare. But wealthy communities think they can support public schools only for their own. This is a problem that states can solve, and they must — for the good of the community as a whole, not for the advantaged few.
Zahava Stadler is manager of policy and research at EdBuild.