Communities are Legally Creating New Boundaries for Separate but Unequal Schools

by Vins
Published: Updated:

During the 2017-2018 school year, the town of Gardendale, Alabama, intended to open two new elementary schools by seceding from its school district’s borders. This resulted in some speaking out against the new district formation due to the exclusivity it was purposely creating. The district that was left behind consists of a higher poverty rate and majority non-white population. This situation is not unique to Alabama. According to a June 2017 report by nonprofit EdBuild, 71 communities have attempted to secede from their school districts since 2000. As Alvin Chang reported in a story for Vox, by starting their own school district, Gardendale’s advocates of smaller, city-based school districts were “carving out a more affluent, more white area.”

Gardendale’s idea to create new elementary schools seems harmless, but the issue is rooted deeper: the residents are committing gerrymandering. Gardendale’s plan harkens back to the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) which legitimized the segregation of white communities from their non-white counterparts.

Gardendale aimed to provide children with better schools that would provide the resources they “deserved,” however in doing so, Chang wrote, they were using borders “to segregate their kids away from their less desirable peers.” Poor children of color became excluded from the new district. The federal judge who oversaw the case, Madeline Haikala, openly admitted that the mostly white residents pushing to secede were expressing racial prejudice.

Although corporate media have covered the racial motives behind Gardendale’s secession. For example, in April 2017, the Washington Post reported on Judge Haikala’s ruling that “the city of Gardendale’s effort to break away was motivated by race,” but the Post failed to address the community’s motives for manipulating the district boundaries. The Vox report revealed findings of Edbuild’s June 2017 report, “Fractured: The Breakdown Of America’s School Districts,” to explain how parents in Jefferson County were “gerrymandering school borders.”


Alvin Chang, “School Segregation Didn’t Go Away. It Just Evolved,” Vox, July 27, 2017,

Edwin Rios, “White People Keep Finding New Ways to Segregate Schools,” Mother Jones, June 23, 2017,

Student Researchers: Kate Beckley, Colleen Madden, Kristen Maher, and Joe Scibelli (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts Amherst)