August 01, 2013

The Enduring Power of Milliken's Fences

Abstract: Using the experience of one community that has undergone a district line altering transformation as a case study, this article argues that endorsement from the state is an essential element for success in efforts to mitigate the educational inequities caused by district boundaries and then offers specific steps states can take to support such changes even without altering district boundaries. Part I will introduce the ways in which school district lines can serve as barriers to educational opportunities, and Part II will summarize several current educational reform proposals and trends that either have the intent or effect of weakening the power of district lines. Part III examines the rationale for the largely successful suburban resistance to district-weakening proposals, filling out the context in which conversations on these topics take place. The case study of the merger of urban and suburban school districts in Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee will be introduced in Part IV. Utilizing the experience in Memphis and Shelby County, Part V will identify lessons learned from Memphis, focusing on the role of the state in assisting or obstructing elimination of interdistrict disparities, and Part VI will offer practical and politically viable suggestions that states can take to address these issues. Although the legal context was quite different, the practical landscape facing the merger process in Memphis was not unlike what Judge Roth found in Detroit four decades earlier. At issue remained questions about whether education should be considered a common undertaking for the entire metropolitan area it affects, or whether local control should be limited conceptually by existing district lines. If anything, the fences between urban and suburban districts have grown even stronger since the Supreme Court embraced them in Milliken. The lessons from this contemporary attempt to break down school district boundaries demonstrate just how strong those fences have become.

This article appeared in The Urban Lawyer.  The full article is available here.