How racial bias helped turn Indianapolis into one city with 11 school districts

The racial segregation and declining enrollment that plagues Indianapolis Public Schools today can be traced back to the decision made 46 years ago to merge Indianapolis with its surrounding suburbs.

The celebrated unified government, or “Unigov,” law brought together about a dozen communities in Marion County into a single large city in 1970. The idea was to put a bigger, more powerful Indianapolis onto the national map, simplify city services and grow the city’s tax base.

Indianapolis was not the only city in the country to merge with its surrounding county at that time — but it was the only one to explicitly leave schools out of the deal.

It was a decision that courts would later call discriminatory. It was, in fact, a primary argument a federal judge cited in 1971 when he ordered desegregation busing of IPS students across school district lines into the townships.

READ MORE: Find the entire series here.

That busing program, which began in 1981, operated until last spring when the court order expired. But a larger share of Indianapolis public schools are segregated today than they were before busing began.

The causes, debates and possible solutions for the problem of school segregation are the subject of an ongoing series by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Star and WFYI.

And one of the causes was Unigov.

The judge who ordered the busing, Samuel Dillin, stated bluntly that a merged city that left 11 separate school districts was racially motivated at a time when a majority of the region’s African-American and minority students lived in the city center while the surrounding school districts primarily enrolled white students.

“Unigov was not a perfect consolidation,” then-Mayor Richard Lugar told Chalkbeat. He went on to be one of Indiana’s most legendary political leaders as a six-term U.S. Senator. “A good number of people really wanted to keep at least their particular school segregated.”

Lugar said he knew the 162-page Unigov bill would die in the Indiana General Assembly if schools were included. But he still thinks the merger was worth it, despite the effects it has had on schools.

“Historically (Unigov) was really the turning point in history for Indianapolis,” Lugar said.

Some residents and politicians argued at the time that their opposition to a school district merger stemmed from economic interests, not racism. Conversations about consolidating districts had been happening since the state’s School Reorganization Act of 1959, which set out to help small rural school districts combine to be more efficient and equitable.

“There were other factors that were more important to the residents of the suburban areas than race,” said Harmon Baldwin, superintendent of Wayne Township for five years in the 1960s. “If you live in the rural areas, you are suspicious of what’s happening in the city area. They were proud of their individual high schools.”

But Landrum Shields, the first black president of the Indianapolis School Board in 1967, argued that it was no coincidence that schools were left out of Unigov. The merger happened at a time when the district was facing a lawsuit alleging it intentionally discriminated against black students.

“To have included schools in Unigov would have raised the spectre of racial integration,” Shields said in the 1985 book “Governing Metropolitan Indianapolis: The Politics of Unigov,” by C. James Owen and York Willbern. “A desegregation suit brought by the (NAACP), joined by the Justice Department, already is pending in court here — and would have meant instant death for the plan.”

Long before the city rights struggles of the 20th century, Indiana had laws going back to the 1850s that required school district boundaries to align with city boundaries.

But after the earlier push to consolidate school districts was met with widespread opposition, local leaders realized that the only way they could expand Indianapolis to include its suburbs was to keep schools separate.

IPS officials already understood by the early 1960s that they could lose valuable tax revenue to support schools if higher income families continued to move out of the center city. Some members of the board attempted for the next decade to sway the conversation toward the idea of a merger to no avail, according to historian and Butler University professor Emma Lou Thornbrough in her 1993 manuscript, “The Indianapolis Story: School Segregation and Desegregation in a Northern City.”

So when the merger eventually passed the Indiana General Assembly in 1969, lawmakers had agreed to leave school district boundaries alone. That year, the township school districts were about 2.6 percent black while in IPS, black students comprised more than one-third of enrollment.

Thornbrough said the response to interdistrict busing from parents and other residents was “swift, highly emotional, and, for the most part, ill-informed,” calling into question assertions that race was truly absent from the conversation.

In the decades following the merger, Indianapolis grew quickly from the 26th largest city in country in 1960 to the 14th largest in 2015.

In Indiana, the strong consensus is that the merger helped put the city on the map and boosted Indiana’s economic power.

“Because of consolidation the city is in a better position going forward – the economy is stronger, the tax base is broader, and the city’s reputation is greater,” said Jeff Wachter in a 2014 case study analyzing city-county consolidation. “The larger population and secure spot as one of the top 15 largest cities in the country helped to raise the city’s stature.”

But as the city’s stature and economy grew, inner-city schools faltered.

Busing to desegregate schools, both within IPS and between districts, helped push out many high- and middle-income families from IPS and the center city. In 1967, IPS enrollment peaked at 108,743 students, said Libby Cierzniak, an Indianapolis history blogger and a lawyer who advises the district on politics and legislation. By 1981, the year right before busing to townships began, it dropped to about 57,000.

Today, the district’s enrollment hovers around 30,000. IPS has closed schools over the years to better fit its shrinking student body, and some buildings house just a fraction of the students they were designed serve.

Fewer students means less state aid, leaving a district that serves a large share of the Marion County kids who have the most barriers to learning, such as those who are poor, have special needs and those learning English, with fewer resources to serve them.

“Desegregation has contributed to decline in enrollment, school closings, dismissal of teachers, and decline in revenue, although other factors are also involved,” Thornbrough wrote. “If the General Assembly had not exempted the suburban school corporations in enacting the Uni-Gov law, the State of Indiana would not have been found guilty of (intentional) segregation.”

Unigov’s legacy for Indiana education is mixed at best, but neither Lugar nor Cierzniak think a future Marion County school district merger — one way some scholars say segregation can be reduced — is likely. Township districts have grown considerably, and the state legislature has heard district consolidation plans over the years that have repeatedly failed.

“(Consolidation) is a very interesting practical idea, but I just get back to the fact that in a democracy, people really have to want to do that,” Lugar said. “I have not seen any movement that was substantial.”