Background: Scholars have increasingly expressed concern about a new secessionist movement, grounded in a doctrine of localism and facilitated by permissive state policies regarding the formation of new school districts. Critics contend that school district secessions threaten to exacerbate patterns of segregation and inequality in schools. Although case studies have provided valuable detail on the processes and racial/ethnic dynamics of secession in high-profile secessions in the South, no extant work has examined secessions nationally.
Objective: In this study, I provide initial quantitative evidence on the prevalence and impact of public school district secessions in a national context. I make three key contributions. First, I identify districts that seceded over the past two decades, relating patterns of secession to state policies. Second, I document racial/ethnic and socioeconomic differences between seceding districts and the districts they left behind, focusing on the differential dynamics of secession in the South. Finally, I examine the impact of secession on the level and geographic distribution of segregation across and between districts.
Research Design: I use geospatial techniques to identify 54 public school district secessions that occurred between 1995–96 and 2015–16, using school district boundaries as reported by the Census Bureau via the School District Review Program. I compare seceding districts to the original district from which they seceded in terms of racial/ethnic and socioeconomic characteristics. I estimate the impact of secession on segregation via interrupted time series models using annual measures of segregation calculated from the National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data.
Findings: Since 1995, dozens of districts across the country have successfully seceded. Troublingly, secessions generally serve to worsen racial/ethnic and socioeconomic inequities: Seceding districts were smaller, Whiter, and more affluent on average than the districts from which they seceded. Secessions were also associated with significant increases in segregation after adjusting for prior segregation trends. Secessions in the South were particularly racialized in nature. Southern secessions tended to worsen already severe levels of Black–White segregation.
Conclusions: School district secessions constitute an increasingly popular and controversial mechanism of school district reorganization. Results suggest that district secessions, often framed in a race-neutral language of localism, serve to worsen inequalities by race and class. However, only a handful of secessions occurred in states that require analysis of the racial/ethnic and/or socioeconomic impacts, suggesting that policies may be effective in curtailing such practices.