Author Erica Frankenberg could not have picked a better place than Jefferson County to conduct such a study. Frankenberg says parts of the South has predominantly county-based school systems, which made it possible to achieve racially balanced districts. But that has become difficult in areas such as Jefferson County, which has 30-some municipalities. Writes Frankenberg:
The integration these countywide districts have engendered is being threatened by municipalities that withdraw from the countywide school district to form separate, small school districts while, in other areas, this pattern of metropolitan fragmentation of school districts has already occurred. Such is the case in the Birmingham, Alabama, metropolitan area, where there are 10 municipal school districts that have broken away from the Jefferson County school system, beginning in 1985. Although the South has made significant gains in desegregating schools since the 1954 Brown decision, these gains are being undone and in some states, such as Alabama, high levels of segregation still exist.
Retired U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon was involved in desegregation efforts as a lawyer in the 1960s. He agrees that Birmingham-area schools have resegregated today. Reports The Birmingham News:
Clemon argued during those desegregation efforts against allowing cities to break away from the Jefferson County school system to form their own systems. He said Friday it was the prospect of court-mandated integration that drove the process.
"In my view, it was very clear that the reason for the creation of those new school systems was to avoid the obligation to desegregate," Clemon said.
Frankenberg says similar trends are seen in other areas of the country. But she is particularly interested in her native Alabama:
Frankenberg, who is from Mobile County, said she chose to use Jefferson County as an example of the trend, in part, because of the county's history of segregation and the court-ordered desegregation that came in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision in 1954. She said the increasing number of school systems in the county provided an opportunity to study the impact of fragmentation over time without the addition of charter schools, which could complicate the study.
In Jefferson County, Frankenberg writes, suburban residents "have demonstrated a distinct preference for protecting white privilege in K-12 education."
One way white privilege is protected is through housing costs. A classic place to see that is in southeastern Jefferson County, where the cities of Mountain Brook and Irondale come together.
Mountain Brook often shows up on lists of the 10 wealthiest cities in the United States, and it established a municipal school system in 1959. Mountain Brook schools are highly regarded and overwhelmingly white.
Irondale is a middle-class area, filled with attractive homes, but it has remained part of the Jefferson County school district. Its students are zoned to Shades Valley High School, which enjoys a solid reputation but has a substantial minority student population--30 to 40 percent would be my guess.
A house hunter can find a lovely home in Irondale for, say, $150,000. You can see virtually the same house one street over, in Mountain Brook, and you will discover that the asking price is probably $350,000--or more.
The euphemism you hear in the Birmingham real-estate game is that cities such as Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills, and Homewood have "good schools." That means they have overwhelmingly white schools, and many home buyers are willing to pay hugely inflated prices to live in those areas.
The cost of white privilege? In terms of home prices, I'd say it ranges from $100,000 to $300,000. That's how much more you have to pay to live in a city with "good schools."
Another euphemism, "local control," often is used to explain the need for city school districts. Frankenberg isn't buying that one, and neither are we:
Frankenberg notes that communities splitting off from the county system have said they wanted more local control over schools, and the courts have largely supported that notion, allowing the separation in all but one case, Pleasant Grove. . . .
Frankenberg writes that the creation of separate school systems "has the same effect of maintaining segregation--to a large extent--of black and white students in the Birmingham area."
We submit that it's not about "local control." It's about the ability to control the racial makeup of school systems--with escalating housing prices being a key factor that attract white families and keep black families out.
We've come a long way since Brown v. Board of Education. But Frankenberg's study indicates we have a long way to go.