Splintering School Districts: Understanding the Link between Segregation and Fragmentation


  • The author thanks Gary Orfield for comments on an earlier draft and Thomas and Cara Kissling for editorial assistance. She gratefully acknowledges the Mark DeWolfe Howe Fund at Harvard Law School and the Dean's Summer Fellowship at Harvard University Graduate School of Education for supporting this research.

Erica Frankenberg is the research and policy director of the Initiative on School Integration of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA. She can be contacted at frankenberg@gseis.ucla.edu. Her current research focuses on issues particularly relevant to understanding the social context of educational inequality, specifically policies relating to racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic segregation and integration of schools and communities.


This article examines the process of fragmentation to understand how the process of establishing new school districts results in high metropolitan-area segregation. Using educational and census data, the article examines how the political process of creating new school districts in Jefferson County, Alabama, changed the nature of segregation. School segregation remained high from 1960 to 2005, but while in the late 1960s segregation of students was predominantly within districts, by 2005 segregation was primarily between districts. Over time, school district boundary lines gained meaning in terms of the characteristics of the district residents. In creating separate districts, local control has the same effect as earlier de jure laws of maintaining racial segregation in the Birmingham area, with few prospects for overcoming boundaries that divide students and opportunities along racial lines. Local control within the current judicial context will define separate populations and maintain or increase metropolitan segregation.