In East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods want an educational divorce from a neighboring community where four out of 10 families live in poverty.
Saying they want local control, they’re trying to leave the 42,000-pupil public-education system. They envision their own district funded by property taxes from their higher-value homes, which would take money from schools in poorer parts of state-capital Baton Rouge, home of Louisiana State University. They even want their own city.
Similar efforts have surfaced in the past two years in Georgia, Alabama, Texas and Tennessee, some of them succeeding as the end of court-ordered desegregation removed legal barriers. The result may be a concentration of poverty and low achievement. A 2012 report by ACT, the Iowa-based testing organization, found only 10 percent of low-income students met college benchmarks in all subjects, less than half the average.
“It’s going to devastate us,” said Tania Nyman, 45, who has two elementary-age children in the Baton Rouge system. “They’re not only going to take the richer white kids out of the district, they are going to take their money out of it.”
U.S. educational funding varies by state, often relying heavily on local taxes. The South, once notorious for segregated schools, by 2011 had the nation’s second-narrowest funding disparity among districts, according to a study by the Federal Education Budget Project, a Washington-based research organization that is an offshoot of the nonpartisan New America Foundation.
Louisiana, however, scored worst in the nation, according to the study. A December report by three LSU economics professors found that breaking up the East Baton Rouge Parish school system would depress total per-pupil spending to $8,870 from $9,635. It would rise to $11,686 in the breakaway district.
Eighty percent of the current district’s students are black, and 82 percent poor enough to qualify for free or reduced school meals. Nyman and other district boosters say a split would set a dire precedent.
“Every affluent community in the state will want to create their own little school system,” said Carnell Washington, president of the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers.“They are taking money away that would help the entire school system and the entire city.”
Backers of the split, whose website is called Local Schools for Local Children, say the district has been failing for at least a dozen years, with some schools performing so poorly that the state took them over. In the 2011-2012 school year, six of 10 students attended a school ranked failing or almost failing by the state and the drop-out rate was 20 percent, according to Baton Rouge Area Chamber, a business group.
“Baton Rouge is one of the best job markets around, and the middle class is moving out,” said Republican state Senator Mack “Bodi” White. “Those who stay have their kids in private schools.”
About 30 percent of children within district lines were in private schools in 2009, according to Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives.
White and other supporters say a split’s impact has been exaggerated, in part by estimates that assume a new district will pay nothing toward the current one’s retirement obligations, which they say they would share.
They also say an influx of state money would buoy the students and teachers left behind: “Nothing will happen to them,” said Lionel Rainey III, 36, a public-relations consultant who is the seceding group’s lead spokesman.
James Richardson, director of the Public Administration Institute at LSU, who researched a split, said the remaining district will get more state dollars because it will have more impoverished children, but that won’t replace lost revenue.
The researchers assumed the new district would pay no retirement obligations because there has been no binding proposal for sharing them, he said.
Horacio Aldrete, a Dallas-based Standard & Poor’s managing director who studies school finance, warned of risk for both sides. A reduced tax base and declining enrollment could hurt the remaining district, while a smaller newcomer would lose efficiencies of scale as it hires superintendents and staff, he said. The splinter system may have to build schools and raise taxes if pupils migrate from private education, he said.
Baton Rouge is among several metropolitan areas where affluent enclaves threatened to secede.
In Alabama, which makes it relatively easy to create districts, two Birmingham suburbs left the countywide system in the past two years. Jefferson County, which encompasses the city, now has 13 systems to serve its population of about 660,000.
In Tennessee, the majority-black Memphis schools last year merged with the majority-white county district. In response, the Republican-dominated legislature lifted a decades-old ban on new systems and six suburbs seceded, approving sales-tax increases to pay for their plans.
In the Atlanta area, new districts have been proposed by Dunwoody, which is part of the DeKalb County schools. In Georgia, new districts require a constitutional amendment, and Dunwoody legislators want to get one on the ballot. A city study showed a new district would immediately have a $30 million annual surplus.
And, in Dallas, a move to create a district emerged last year. Parents are proposing a system called White Rock in an affluent area east of the city.
Carving out districts would have been difficult 20 years ago, when desegregation decrees were in place across the U.S., especially in the South, said Dennis Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program.
“They could not have done this under court order,” Parker said.
About half of the almost 500 districts under desegregation orders in 1990 were released by 2009, according to a Stanford University study.
The Baton Rouge case ended in 2007, the nation’s longest at 47 years, according to the Tulane institute. Supporters of a new school system twice tried to get the Louisiana legislature to put a constitutional question on the ballot that would create a district. Last year, they started working to form a new town, saying it would better their chances.
If approved by voters, St. George, as it would be called, would be Louisiana’s fifth-largest city. Prospective residents hope its existence would provide political momentum for separate schools.
St. George would have about 100,000 residents, or a quarter of the population now governed by the combined city-parish government of Baton Rouge. It also would include much of the area’s retail and commercial development, including the Mall of Louisiana, which has more than 150 shops, among them department stores of Macy’s Inc. and Dillard’s Inc.
The area generates a disproportionate 40 percent of local government’s sales and use tax receipts, according to the LSU report. Removing that might mean the splintering of the unified government that now runs Baton Rouge, the researchers said.
They called the new-city method of creating a school system “costly and imprecise.”