I recently read a study titled “School Boards and Student Segregation,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
“While boards are generally charged with setting district policies (such as through hiring superintendents),” the study notes, “their responsibility for allocating students to schools with its attendant consequences for school segregation has been at the center of multiple landmark Supreme Court decisions.”
Since those decisions, the study points out, “Addressing student segregation across schools has increasingly fallen under the purview of elected local school boards, principally through the drawing of attendance zone boundaries.”
The authors, Hugh Macartney, economics professor at Duke University, and John D. Singleton, economics professor at the University of Rochester, had noticed an increase in racial segregation of Wake County schools following a change in the partisan makeup of the Wake County school board.
They decided to examine whether this phenomenon exists throughout North Carolina school districts.
The authors looked at school board elections from 2008 to 2013 in all school districts in the state. They matched candidates and parties. They also analyzed the racial composition of schools throughout the state relative to the partisan affiliation of school board members.
Macartney and Singleton state that their study “provides the first causal evidence about how elected local school boards affect student segregation across schools.”
And what effect did they find? The study says “that (relative to their non-Democratic counterparts), Democratic board members decrease racial segregation across schools.”
And how do they do this?
“Our findings suggest,” the authors write, “that school boards realize such reductions in segregation by shifting attendance zones.”
I found this analysis to be of interest on a couple of levels.
First, it led me to think back to my move south to Virginia in the mid-1960s. At that point, Democrats controlled state politics, and they were ardent segregationists. In one Virginia county, they went so far as to close the public schools rather than integrate them.
Even outside Richmond, where I lived, the schools were segregated, and efforts to integrate them were marked by resistance.
I recall one day when most of the students at my middle school walked out to protest a federal desegregation order. At a school function, I remember the Democratic district attorney leading the attendees in a rousing rendition of “Dixie.”
In this environment, Virginia somehow elected its first Republican governor in the 20th century, Linwood Holton. And what did he do shortly after moving into the Executive Mansion, which is located next to what had been the capital of the Confederacy? He enrolled his children in the predominantly African-American Richmond public schools.
What a profound statement this was! He put his party firmly on the side of integration. This was the Republican Party that I grew up with. This was a party I was proud to belong to.
So what has happened over the past 50 years that we now find ourselves in a Southern state where it is the Democrats on our school boards who lead us to greater integration? A more learned social scientist than I will have to answer that question.
However, the study raises another point of interest beyond partisan impacts. Our state’s school boards create reductions in racial segregation by shifting attendance zones. When I recently asked, our school district was unable to identify when the last attendance zone changes had been made for our elementary and primary schools with the highest percentage of African-American students.
So it has probably been decades since any attempt was made to adjust attendance zones in these areas. During that time, there has been significant growth in alternative schools, which has led a number of white students to leave the traditional public schools. The result has been a slowly evolving de facto resegregation of some of our traditional public schools.
However, Macartney and Singleton’s study shows that there is a simple solution: shifting attendance zones. And while the current primary and elementary schools’ physical locations may have stymied zonal changes in the past, with the upcoming construction of two new elementaries in Southern Pines and one new elementary in Aberdeen, the school board has an unparalleled opportunity to shift attendance zones to promote more integrated student bodies at these schools.
The board also has an opportunity to contradict the conclusions of this study that school integration is impacted by which party is in control. Our board can show that in this Republican county, public school integration is not exclusively the purview of Democrats, but can be achieved by all women and men of goodwill.