Brief provides important context for landmark school district secession case

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th circuit hears the case of Stout v. Jefferson next week, it will be deciding more than the fate of one small community in Jefferson County, Alabama. The court's ruling, which likely will be the definitive opinion in this case, could set precedent for other cases in the three southern states comprising the 11th circuit.

A recent national study illustrated the rising number of district secessions, in which typically homogeneous white communities seek to leave larger, more diverse school districts. "The case of Jefferson County is a complex one for a variety of reasons," said Erica Frankenberg, associate professor of education (educational leadership) and demography, and co-founder and director of the Center for Education and Civil Rights in the Penn State College of Education.

"The case stems from the town of Gardendale, which is 88 percent white, attempting to secede from Jefferson County, in which whites are now less than 50 percent of students, in part due to earlier community secessions from the countywide district. If Gardendale is able to create its own school district, it would make desegregation more difficult in the county."

Frankenberg said Jefferson County remains under a desegregation court order that came in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, so the community may not leave the district without the approval of the courts. In a lower court ruling, Judge Madeline Haikala of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama in Birmingham, acknowledged that "race was a motivating factor" behind the secession effort, and yet still permitted Gardendale to establish and operate two elementary schools under close supervision from the court. That ruling was appealed and put on hold, and now will be considered by the 11th circuit.

Frankenberg and graduate student Kendra Taylor have written a research brief that serves as a comprehensive primer for this case and provides context for understanding the demographic implications of the current legal case over the Gardendale school district secession in Jefferson County.

"In the brief, we show both historical and contemporary patterns of enrollment and segregation for students and residents," Frankenberg said. "School district secession is related to changing population patterns within Jefferson County, Alabama, and have important implications for racial diversity in school districts. Students rarely cross district boundary lines; therefore, the existence of what is now a dozen districts, many of which are largely white or non-white, means that district boundary lines are creating little possibility for meaningful desegregation."

Frankenberg and Taylor describe patterns of school and residential segregation in Jefferson County over a nearly 50-year period as school districts have seceded from the county school district.

"We find that white students and the white population of Jefferson County, Alabama, are increasingly concentrated in the school districts that have seceded from the Jefferson County school district. Moreover, when considering the enrollment of districts that have seceded from Jefferson County since the district’s desegregation order began in the 1960s, the percentage of white students is substantially higher than Jefferson County schools are today post-secession,” Frankenberg said.

Taylor noted that school districts and home values are closely linked in Jefferson County.

"The school districts that seceded in the mid-20th century have higher home values compared to Jefferson County School District," she said. Their research shows that some splinter districts' populations become more advantaged relative to the county in the immediate aftermath of the district formation.

To read the full brief, visit https://cecr.ed.psu.edu/research/school-district-secessions online.

Media Contacts: 

Dr. Erica Frankenberg

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814-865-5862
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Professor of Educational Leadership and Demography

Last Updated December 07, 2017