Rebekah Morris, a resident of DeKalb County, teaches high school English. Morris focuses on poverty and education policy as an independent researcher
Today, Morris takes on one of the most controversial political questions in state education: Should the state constitution be amended to allow cities to break from their county systems and form their own school districts?
By Rebekah Morris
Because we all value the goals of racial equality and providing quality educational opportunities for every student, please read this article with open eyes.
We cannot allow cities in Georgia to create their own independent school districts.
Before I make my case, I understand the appeal of local control. Many people will agree those living in a community will understand the issues facing that community and will be able to make the best decisions regarding the schools for a particular community.
However, this is not the only consideration when discussing independent school districts, also referred to as city school districts.
In Georgia, there are 181 public school systems. There are 159 county school systems and 21 city school systems. Now, in Article VIII, Sec. V, Par. VI, of the 1976 Georgia Constitution (Code Ann. § 2-5306), “[a]uthority is hereby granted to municipal corporations to maintain existing independent school systems… No independent school system shall hereafter be established.”
Basically, if you were a city or independent school district before 1945, Georgia law allows you to continue operating – which is why City Schools of Decatur and other city districts are still in operation. However, if a city wants to create a city school district now, they are prohibited.
State Rep. Tom Taylor of Dunwoody, one of the wealthiest suburbs in metro Atlanta, wants to amend the Georgia Constitution to allow cities created since 2005 (eg. Johns Creek, Sandy Springs, Dunwoody, Brookhaven, Peachtree Corners, etc.) to create their own school districts (House Bill 784).
He tried to get this bill through the Legislature during the 2013-2014 legislative session. It failed. The 2014-2015 legislative session saw the bill fail again, but this time it included any city, not just ones created since 2005 (HB 4). During the 2016 legislative session, I am sure we will be seeing it again.
If you are zoning out by now, let me bring you back. To me, this is a civil rights issue. Most of these cities are predominantly wealthy and white.
Desegregation laws in the 1960s caused massive white flight from the city of Atlanta in large part because white parents wanted to avoid having their children in school with black children (either because their children would be zoned for schools where black children would be attending or black children would be allowed into certain majority white schools through the process of intradistrict busing).
Consider the story of the integration of Kirkwood Elementary School. Read the story in “Atlanta Rising,” “The Atlanta Paradox,” or any other book that chronicles how Kirkwood Elementary announced on a Friday in 1965 they would be integrating their students the following Monday. Over the weekend, all but seven white children left the school and nearly 500 black students started school the next Monday.
The school was officially “integrated.”
To avoid these situations during the 1960s and 70s, whites moved outside of Atlanta schools to DeKalb County, where there weren’t as many black families. But as more middle-class and working blacks were able to afford to move out of Atlanta and into a better school district, whites began leaving DeKalb and heading for Gwinnett and north Fulton.
One individual who attended a mostly white high school during those years told me privately a few months ago that blacks had “ruined their school” when they had arrived at her high school in the 1980s.
DeKalb County, along with 109 other school systems in Georgia (including Atlanta Public Schools and Fulton County), needed additional government oversight during the 1960s and 70s to ensure that desegregation was, in fact, happening. Once a school system demonstrated it was desegregated in six categories, they were placed on “Unitary Status” and the system was then free from federal oversight.
And that brings us to the cityhood movement of today.
Apparently white flight has reached a limit as to how far they are willing to “fly” to escape integrated schools. Nowadays, people don’t state directly they don’t want their children in schools with children of other races – they make the case against having their children in school with children from poor families or troubled backgrounds, many of whom happen to be Hispanic or black.
While de jure (or legal) segregation does not exist, de facto (what’s actually happening) segregation is, sadly, very much alive.
This is why independent school districts are problematic: allowing cities to create their own school districts in Georgia would only exacerbate the problem of de facto segregation. The only kinds of cities that could even support their own school systems financially would have to be ones that had a wealthy tax base, and this would result in a myriad of problems, including segregation of socioeconomic classes and (many times) race.
Consider the cities that have been created since 2005 – Dunwoody (69.8% white, 12% black, median family income of $106,777), Johns Creek (63.5% white, 9% black, median family income of $137,271), Sandy Springs (65% white, 20% black, median family income of $129,810), and Brookhaven (61% white, 17% black, median family income of $52,679). In addition to being majority white cities, they are also extremely wealthy compared with other parts of Atlanta.
Creating an independent school district would not only allow these cities the ability to cut off families who could not afford to live in their city limits, but it would also remove a significant amount of funding from the county systems that they are now a part of.
By simply incorporating, cities (contrary to popular opinion) did not remove any funding from the county school system. In creating an independent school district, however, these cities would take the property taxes allocated to the county school system and instead use the money to fund their city school system, leaving the schools left in the county system without their biggest tax base.
These school systems already have a difficult time spreading their thin budget to meet the needs of the county-wide system, so removing their wealthiest taxpayers would further limit their ability to attract teachers and administrators with competitive salaries, maintain school buildings and properties, and provide materials for extracurricular activities (i.e. sports fields/stadiums, band equipment, art supplies, etc.) – among other things.
If any of this resonates with you, please take the time to figure out how you can advocate against this and other isolationist policies. I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty for unintentionally playing a role in these types of things. (Heck, I grew up in Gwinnett and went to high school with only a couple black students.)
But I am trying to raise awareness so people can understand their actions don’t occur in a vacuum, and we must consider how our individual actions impact others.
A few ways you can personally get involved would be to join a Local School Advisory Council or a parent council in your region or cluster. You can also attend community input sessions at your school board meetings, and of course, you can always reach out to your respective board member or state representative.
If nothing else, hopefully you will begin having this conversation with those you know. Kids and their life outcomes are greatly affected by education, and every student deserves a chance to succeed. Let’s try to figure out the best way to do that.