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Separate Ways

By Lory Hough, on May 18, 2010 12:11 PM

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The landmark 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education didn't end segregation in schools. What did change, says Erica Frankenberg, Ed.M.'02, Ed.D.'08, in her new study, "Splintering School Districts: Understanding the Link Between Segregation and Fragmentation," is the nature of segregation, especially in the South.

Using one county in Alabama as her case study, Frankenberg, the research and policy director of the Initiative on School Integration at UCLA's Civil Rights Project, found that in the aftermath of the Brown case, segregation was primarily within districts; today it is primarily between districts, with individual cities and towns pulling away from larger countywide school districts that had once been a factor in increasing integration, to form their own smaller -- and often not integrated -- school districts.

"I first became aware of this process of fragmentation -- the creation of entirely separate school districts -- when one community in the county I grew up in, Mobile County, started to propose this," she says. "I did some reading and realized how easy this is to do in Alabama." Any city in the state with 5,000 residents is allowed to form a separate school district with just a vote of the residents.

The result is that segregation increases as more school districts are created. In Jefferson County, Alabama's most densely populated county and the focus of her case study, which began as her qualifying paper while she was a doctoral student, there were only a few districts when the Brown case said that separate could not be equal. Using Census and other educational data, Frankenberg found that just a few years later, starting in 1959, residents in predominantly white communities began to leave the county's school system, despite Jefferson County being under a desegregation order. Today there are 12 separate school districts. As these new, smaller districts formed, the number of white students in the larger Jefferson County district decreased. For example, in 1968, 60 percent of students in the county were white. By 2005, the figure had dropped to 43 percent, while cities like Trussville and Vestavia Hills, once part of the larger district but now separate, were each more than 80 percent white. Other breakaway cities were initially largely white but have since transitioned, some quite rapidly, to become overwhelmingly minority districts.

Frankenberg says that those who propose redrawing district lines never explicitly say it's about race or class, of course, but instead often use the phrase "local control" to defend their case.

"Traditionally, in a lot of the historical research that I did, the vague notion of wanting control over the students is not surprising," she says. "Historically, 'local control' is one of the arguments for segregation in general."

She adds, "The rhetoric of local control obscures separate and unequal conditions that have resulted when small, new school systems form that are racially identifiable. In the creation of separate districts, local control has the same effect of maintaining segregation -- to a large extent -- of black and white students."

In an article about Frankenberg's study that was published in The Birmingham News in December, U.W. Clemon, a retired U.S. district court judge who was involved in desegregation cases in the 1960s, said that as a result of fragmentation, the schools in Jefferson County are "resegregated" today, and not by accident.

"In my view," he said, "it was very clear that the reason for the creation of those new school systems was to avoid the obligation to desegregate."

This pattern of fragmenting districts is not unique to Jefferson County or Alabama, Frankenberg says, which is why it's critical that we "fully understand the longterm consequences of this process in newly created districts." In addition to affecting housing and population patterns, she says numerous studies show that there are both academic and socialization benefits in attending integrated schools and that highquality teachers tend to leave racially isolated minority schools (but not overwhelmingly white schools) at higher rates.

Frankenberg's interest in these issues isn't simply academic. Murphy High, the school she attended in Mobile, was one of the first in Alabama to begin integrating black and white students in 1963, despite public protests by the state's then-governor, George Wallace, who famously said during his inaugural address that same year, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Although she attended the school three decades later, its legacy made a lasting impression.

"It was a remarkable experience," she says, "and certainly informed what I do now."

Illustration: Jeff Hopkins