The Future Looks Grim for School Desegregation, as a Recent Alabama Case Shows

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Analysis Law and Policy

The Future Looks Grim for School Desegregation, as a Recent Alabama Case Shows

Lisa Needham

An Alabama federal district court judge ruled that a mostly white suburb called Gardendale can partially separate from the surrounding Jefferson County schools and create its own school system, even though its desire to do so is motivated by racism.

In 1965, 11 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, Blevins Stout, a Black resident of Jefferson County, Alabama, filed a lawsuit seeking to enroll his daughter, Linda, in the all-white county school district. In doing so, Stout hoped to desegregate the county school system. Jefferson County has been under a desegregation court order ever since.

In the last five decades, desegregation efforts in the country have proceeded in fits and starts, with school systems dissolved, transfer plans rejected, and schools forcibly merged after districts refused to begin busing. Desegregation court orders vary in scope. In Jefferson County, the district initially had a good deal of discretion as to how to meet desegregation goals. However, it initially chose plans such as “freedom of choice,” in which Black students had to request transfers to predominantly white schools. Later courts disapproved of this sort of plan precisely because it shifted the burden to Black students.

Last month, the most recent battle in this long, long war of a case came to an end: An Alabama federal district court judge ruled that a mostly white suburb called Gardendale can partially separate from the surrounding Jefferson County schools and create its own school system, even though its desire to do so is motivated by racism.  

Gardendale is a mostly white suburb that abuts mostly Black Birmingham, Alabama, both of which are in Jefferson County. It’s also much more affluent than Birmingham. Thanks to a quirk of Alabama law, it is totally permissible for individual municipalities to break off from county-level control and form their own school districts. Predominantly white towns in Jefferson County have tried to do so repeatedly, and sometimes they have succeeded.

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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Gardendale has been contemplating separation from the Jefferson County schools for decades, but the effort began in earnest back in 2012. Organizers of the effort explained their motivation for wanting to leave in vague terms like “general improvements in education” and “historically in many areas, including Alabama, a smaller system with individual local control … tend[s] to perform better academically than larger systems.” (Judge Madeline Haikala’s 190-page decision notes this is demonstrably not true, as different Alabama municipal systems consistently rank at both the top and the bottom, achievement-wise, regardless of their size.)

Other explanations from the organizers and other backers of the plan, however, engaged in exactly the sort of coded racism that pervades opposition to integrated schools. The court decision notes that parents complained of students being bused in from all over and invoked the specter of Gardendale becoming another Pinson or Huffman—nearby, predominantly Black towns. It also cites the fact that a flyer was circulated with a picture of a white student and the slogan “What path will Gardendale choose?” The flyer listed cities in Jefferson County that have integrated or those with mostly Black populations in order to invoke a contrast with predominantly white Gardendale.  

The desire to separate also seemed motivated by greed. The judge pointed out that Jefferson County had recently built a $55 million dollar high school in Gardendale, and Gardendale believed that if it separated, it could take the high school with it for free.

The court found that Gardendale’s separation would indeed make Gardendale’s schools whiter. It also found that the City was motivated by “a desire to control the racial demographics of the four public schools in the City of Gardendale,” and to avoid enrolling the Black students that are currently being bused to Gardendale pursuant to the desegregation order.

And yet, the judge partially approved Gardendale’s desire to break off from the Jefferson County schools: The City now has the right to run some elementary schools at the municipal level, though the high school will remain part of Jefferson County schools.

In her ruling, the judge seemed to fall victim to the notion that many parents of Gardendale students may not be motivated by racism at all, but instead by a desire for their children to attend the best schools:

Each of the parties in this case—the parents who serve as the private plaintiffs, the United States, the Jefferson County Board of Education, and the Gardendale Board of Education—is trying to secure the best public education for the students whom the party serves.

The problem with this framing is that it implicitly agrees with the idea that wanting your children to be surrounded only by children that look like them is somehow the same as wanting to secure them a good education. In reality, this isn’t the case. Children who attend integrated schools, regardless of race, have higher average test scores, are more likely to enroll in college, and are less likely to drop out. Integrated schools also significantly decrease the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

The judge was also limited by U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence: Over the years, the Court has prioritized “local control,” maintaining that letting smaller political subdivisions like municipalities control the education system is inherently better than letting county or federal-level officials do so. But “local control,” when applied, has often been synonymous with Southern states trying to get school systems out from under desegregation orders.

Though the judge seemed sincerely troubled by the racism that underpinned this entire effort and equally sincerely motivated to do the right thing, the decision has profound implications in the Trump era. First, there’s the depressing reality that we no longer have a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that will fight for desegregation. In fact, the DOJ, under Obama, had opposed the Gardendale breakaway effort, but declined to even comment on this recent decision. Next, Trump has already issued an executive order strengthening local control and promising to stop the federal government from “imposing its will” on state and local governments. His secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, echoes this, saying “when it comes to education, decisions made at local levels and at state levels are the best ones.” This is, of course, nonsense, as decisions made at local levels are exactly what led to persistent and vicious racism-fueled segregation.

Over the past 60 years, litigation has been a critical tool in the fight against segregation, as has federal imposition of desegregation orders. With a Supreme Court that likely will look askance at litigation efforts—Chief Justice John Roberts already gutted the Voting Rights Act because he doesn’t believe discrimination is pervasive any longer—and an executive branch that won’t exert authority over schools who discriminate, the future looks grim for desegregation.