When the Fences Come Down: Twenty-First-Century Lessons from Metropolitan School Desegregation

By Genevieve Siegel-Hawley | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Why Boundary Lines Matter So Much—
and What We Have Done about Them

In many ways, the boundary lines dividing school districts, and schools within districts, are the building blocks of modern-day educational inequality. They help balkanize regions along racial and socioeconomic lines, divvying up students and key educational resources like engaged peers, experienced, high-quality teachers, and challenging curricula along the way. As a result, actions taken to alter school-related boundaries often prove controversial. Consider the following example of contemporary wrangling over school district lines.

Prompted by fiscal concerns related to a shifting political landscape in the Tennessee state legislature, in 2010 the Memphis City School Board voted to surrender the charter governing its school district in order to fold into the surrounding system in Shelby County. In Tennessee, all counties must maintain countywide school districts. Within those large districts, major cities like Memphis often operated separate school systems (Memphis City Schools were incorporated by the state legislature in the mid-1800s). But if city officials and residents agree to dismantle their system, responsibility for administering public education automatically reverts to the countywide district1—in this case, Shelby County.

Erasing the lines between Shelby County and Memphis resulted in the largest consolidation in American history, bringing together a city school system that was 85 percent black and 76 percent low income with a suburban one that was approximately 38 percent black and 31 percent low income.2 Though discussions of altering student assignment policies to promote diversity were not at the forefront, memories attached to the earlier desegregation era echoed through plans for the merger.3 Proponents of the consolidation hoped it would help create a more unified, sustainable, and highly resourced school system. Opponents feared the loss of control, a depletion of resources, and an erosion of school quality. Many viewed the issues through the prism of racial and economic disparities between the city and suburbs.4

Three years later, in 2013, students began their first day of class in the newly unified Memphis-area school system amid signs of revolt from

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