Cornell Law Review Volume 102 Issue 1

The New School Segregation

The South has a long and sordid history of resisting school desegregation. Yet after a long and vigorous legal fight, by the mid-1980s, schools in the South became among the most desegregated in the country. An important but often underappreciated tool that aided in the fight to desegregate schools in the South was the conventional and strategic use of school district boundary lines. Many school systems in the South deliberately eschewed drawing school district boundary lines around municipalities and instead drew them around counties. The resulting county-based system of school districts allowed for the introduction of school assignment plans that crossed racially and economically segregated municipal boundary lines.

Some affluent and predominantly white suburban municipalities in the South are threatening to reverse this progress. They are doing so by seceding from racially diverse county-based school districts and forming their own predominately white and middle-class school districts. The secessions are grounded in the race-neutral language of localism, or the preference for decentralized governance structures. However, localism in this context is threatening to do what Brown v. Board of Education outlawed: return schools to the days of separate and unequal with the imprimatur of state law.

This Article is the first to examine Southern municipal school district secessions and the localism arguments that their supporters advance to justify them. It argues that localism is being used as a race-neutral proxy to create segregated school systems that are immune from legal challenge. It concludes by introducing a normative framework to evaluate the legitimacy of the localism justification for Southern school district secessions specifically and decentralized public education governance structures more broadly.

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