This past weekend, after years of pushing to create a separate school system, residents of a largely white suburb of Baton Rouge, Louisiana voted to become a new city called St. George. Residents of this community pointed to the violence and poor conditions of Baton Rouge public schools, arguing their tax dollars would be better spent closer to home. With 54 percent of voters in the community approving the amendment, St. George gained control of its taxes and schools from the less affluent, more diverse surrounding parish. Given state laws, the rest of the parish could not vote on the fate of this community.

Critics of the amendment long held that the philosophical arguments for “local control” simply masked a familiar story of affluent white people seeking to separate themselves from Black and low-income communities. Business leaders also strongly opposed the measure, citing the negative impacts this could have on the parish’s economy. In a statement, Sharon Weston Broome, Mayor-President of Baton Rouge, explained: “I am determined to find a path forward that is best for ALL of the citizens of this parish and not a portion of our population.”

The story of St. George is not a unique one. According to a recent EdBuild study, 30 states allow communities to secede from their school systems. And since 2000, 73 communities across the country, most of them white and wealthy, have done just that. Because American school districts are primarily funded by local property tax dollars, “this ties school budgets to local wealth levels—and that means great rewards for those who can redefine ‘local.’”

History Repeating Itself

65 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, efforts such as these to chip away at policies that fostered integration have increased school segregation across the country. While much of school segregation is structural – due to both the legacy of discrimination and new policies perpetuating inequality – parents and policymakers alike choose to uphold these systems to the detriment of students of color and their communities as a whole.

In her essay, “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” Nikole Hannah-Jones, an investigative reporter for The New York Times Magazine, chronicled the decisions she and other parents made while navigating one of the nation’s most segregated school districts. “Saying my child deserved access to ‘good’ public schools felt like implying that children in ‘bad’ schools deserved the schools they got, too,” she writes.  She goes on to explain, “I was determined not to do what I’d seen so many others do when their values about integration collided with the reality of where to send their own children to school.” Still, many affluent parents fear what such a stand would mean for their child’s future, and don’t want to gamble with the advantages they have access to.

And yet, in the case of St. George and other communities that secede from their school districts, there is no evidence that smaller school districts are better. In fact, they often have fewer resources as they face higher administrative costs. By contrast, research shows when schools are economically and racially integrated, all students gain a number of academic, social, and economic benefits.  Achieving integration, however, would require policies and actions that center low-income students and students of color, but such proposals often face vocal opposition from angry parents.

“There’s an ingrained societal suspicion that intentionally supporting one group hurts another. That equity is a zero-sum game,” PolicyLink founder-in-residence Angela Glover Blackwell explained in her essay “The Curb Cut Effect.” “When the nation targets support where it is needed most—when we create the circumstances that allow those who have been left behind to participate and contribute fully—everyone wins.”

This is particularly important to understand as our country undergoes demographic shifts in the midst of persistent racial and economic inequality. Beyond the moral imperative for equity, rising inequality places a drag on the economy and undermines national prosperity. As the country continues to diversify, it is evident that what happens to people of color will determine the fate of the nation.

If anything, the residents of the new City of St. George did accomplish something noteworthy. They demonstrated that when you have a clear vision supported by persistent and dedicated organizers, you can change the system and impact the lives of an entire community. Unfortunately, the goals they set were simply too narrow. In an op-ed for the state paper The Advocate, the editorial staff opposed the measure, concluding, “St. George’s supporters include residents who have demonstrated an impressive degree of civic engagement – a willingness to get involved that can be a great resource if channeled into improving the existing city-parish government and public school system.” Instead, they left. While they were bold enough to imagine a better society for themselves, they lacked the imagination to see it including everyone. 

Tracey Ross is a writer and advocate who leads the All-In Cities initiative at PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity.

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