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Is It Segregation or Fragmentation?

An alarming trend shows glaring gaps in race, ethnicity.

An unsettling trend is emerging in urban pockets across the country as some school districts are redrawing their boundary lines. As a result, many municipalities are showing glaring gaps in race, ethnicity and economic status.

A recent study shines a spotlight on Jefferson County, Ala., and illustrates the distressing process of metropolitan subdivision and the direct consequences of subsequent school resegregation. “Splintering School Districts: Understanding the Link between Segregation and Fragmentation,” from the fall 2009 issue of Law & Social Inquiry, centers on a Birmingham community where local control over education is revered and the fragmentation of districts is prevalent. Any city in Alabama with over 5,000 residents can form a district separate from the county.

“It’s a complex pattern that developed over a period of several decades since the 1950s,” says Erica Frankenberg, author of the study and research and policy director for the initiative on school integration at the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. “The discourse over these decisions is around local control, not segregation. Communities view schools as a valuable resource, but there is little evidence of thinking how that might affect other people in the metropolitan areas.”

According to the study, between district segregation accounts for approximately 70 percent of all school segregation. It describes how families that do not face economic barriers in the housing market are able to move to homes in areas considered to provide high-quality schools, while others cannot.

In Parents Involved with Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007), the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to use race as a factor in assigning children to public schools, but agreed districts may consider it to be a compelling interest to achieve a diverse student body.

“It’s a disturbing phenomenon,” says Susan Eaton, research director at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. “Racially diverse schools do far better in terms of short- and long-term achievements for kids, developing critical thinkers and children of color persisting and finding success.”

Unable to legally redistribute the student population, districts must encourage diversity through other means, such as implementing regional magnet schools and cross-district transportation systems, addressing housing policies, and stabilizing communities, according to Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

“Thousands of schools around the country are becoming more unequal, and many people aren’t doing anything about it,” says Orfield.

Going forward, Orfield believes the Obama administration may encourage policy changes and the courts will become more skeptical of motions for district fragmentation.