Leave your heart in San Francisco, if you’d like, but if you have children, you may well decide to take the rest of your corporeal self to one of the Bay Area’s suburbs, either east or south of the city. Many families elect to venture “through the tunnel” to Walnut Creek, Orinda and Moraga, the posh hamlets separated from Berkeley and Oakland by a ridge of hills.
You do it for the kids: Miramonte High School was deemed sixth in California by the ranking company Niche. It sends graduates to Dartmouth, Yale, Stanford, MIT. The Acalanes Union High School District earned 8th place.
Then there’s Mt. Diablo. It’s technically through the tunnel as well, but the school district, which encompasses the somewhat less desirable suburbs to the north and east of Walnut Creek, earned a relatively paltry B- rating from Niche.
Some local parents decided that they wouldn’t accept this sharp gradient. In 2014, they moved to cut Mt. Diablo in two, hoping to form an independent Northgate Unified School District. “Local control is essential in the success of our public schools,” this faction declared, claiming that the Mt. Diablo district suffered from “big-district dysfunction.” The fulcrum of the new district would be the high-performing Northgate High School in Walnut Creek, one middle school and three elementary schools.
There was something the Northgate proposal didn’t say. If the secession succeeded, Northgate would be a mostly white district (66%), whereas Mt. Diablo is split almost evenly between whites (41%) and Latinos (36%). The petition for a new district promised that “there is no reason to expect any reduction of the student-body diversity that we now enjoy in our schools.” And yet the principal of Northgate — who must know a thing or two about his own school — estimated that his white population would jump from 58% to 80%. “I believe in my heart of hearts that this is about excluding brown kids,” he said. “That might not be their intention. But it’s an unintended consequence at least.” This educational version of divorce has become dismayingly common. A recent report by EdBuild, a nonprofit organization that researches school funding, found that there have been 71 secession attempts across the nation since 2000. Those efforts proved successful on 47 occasions. Laws in many states make it easy to break up. EdBuild found that 21 states don’t even require an impact study. If there’s a private will, there will be a public way.
Splinter districts tend to be more affluent and less diverse than the districts they’re trying to leave. Of course, supporters never, never say that. The overt racism of the Jim Crow era is gone. The proponents of local control instead rail against bloated bureaucracy; they say their kids’ needs are unmet by central office pencil-pushers, by schools so large they have become uncaring and unsafe.
Tell these people that, by breaking away, they are returning public education to a antediluvian state of racial affairs, and they’d be aghast. They haven’t a racist bone in their bodies! It’s just, one has to think about college, and private school isn’t an option. They don’t even see race. But they do see test scores.
This is more or less what I heard while reporting on a secession effort in Gardendale, Ala., a middle-class suburb of Birmingham that spent several years trying to leave the Jefferson County school district. Much as Northgate looks longingly to Walnut Creek, Gardendale eyed the wealthy “over the mountain” suburbs south of the city, like Vestavia Hills and Hoover, that have some of the best schools in Alabama. Those suburbs operate their own districts, so why can’t Gardendale? The town’s mayor put the matter plainly: “People will not move here to be a part of the Jefferson County school system.”
At the heart of these desires it not so much direct racism as selfishness. Ronald Reagan convinced Americans that government was a hostile force, to be fought off like an intruder. Local control of schools is an assertion of this parochial sentiment, a desire to share nothing with the next village over. And this selfishness is everywhere. Malibu, for example, is trying to break away from Santa Monica’s school system. Americans, very much including liberal Americans, have decided that they deserve good schools and safe communities, and if that harms some other segment of society, well, then fine.
The Northgate secession failed late last month after a narrow 3-2 vote by the county board of education to keep Mt. Diablo intact. The secessionists in Gardendale were more fortunate. In a ruling that surprised many, a federal judge in Birmingham allowed for a gradual split from the Jefferson County schools, contingent on the town making efforts to keep its schools integrated. Of course, the best way to keep Gardendale’s schools integrated would have been to keep them in the county system.
I’m reminded of a recent sign I saw that played on our national creed and, in so doing, provided a powerful civics lesson: “More pluribus, less unum.”
Alexander Nazaryan is a senior writer at Newsweek covering national affairs.