schools divided

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

PHOTO: Indianapolis Recorder Collection, Indiana Historical Society
Protestors carried signs asking for school redistricting and integration. They were on the sidewalk in front of IPS School 17 in the 1960s.

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.”

Indianapolis schools divided

Admissions changes are diversifying Indianapolis Public Schools most popular magnets. Now, the district may go further.

PHOTO: Provided by Indianapolis Public Schools
The magnet priority admission boundaries adopted by Indianapolis Public Schools in 2016.

New rules designed to make Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought after schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color appear to be working. But with admissions still skewed, the administration is proposing going even further.

Across IPS, just one in five students are white and nearly 70 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance. But at three of the district’s most sought after magnet schools, white students fill most of the seats and the vast majority of students come from middle class or affluent families.

At a board meeting last month, district staff highlighted School 60 (the Butler University lab school), School 84 and School 2 (both Center for Inquiry schools) as three schools where seats fill up fast and enrollment doesn’t reflect the demographics of the district.

In a bid to make those schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color, the board changed the admissions rules for magnets last fall. They shrank the boundaries that give priority to families who live near the schools, which is important because the three most popular schools drew from areas with more white, affluent families. And they changed the timeline for magnet admission to allow families to apply later.

“Magnet schools were born out of the civil rights movement and were intended to help school districts to re-integrate,” former-board member Gayle Cosby said at the time. “We want to make sure that magnet schools are not actually serving a different purpose in our district.”

The changes appear to have opened Schools 2, 84 and 60 to more students of color, according to data from the first admission cycle under the new rules. Next year, 32 percent of kindergarteners are expected to be children of color. That’s more than double last year, when just 14 percent of kindergarteners were not white.

But those demographics don’t come close to matching the district, where 72 percent of kindergarteners are children of color.

IPS director of enrollment and options Patrick Herrel said the goal should be for admissions at the most popular magnet schools to reflect district demographics.

“All kids, regardless of background, (should) have an equal chance of accessing some of our highest quality schools,” he said. “We moved in the right direction, but we are absolutely not there yet.”

The changes also aim to make the schools more economically diverse, but the data on income diversity among kindergarteners won’t be available until students complete enrollment and income verification paperwork, according to an IPS official.

District staff say IPS could do more. Last month, they presented the board with a plan to reserve more seats for students who apply late in the cycle. IPS data shows that students who apply later in the spring are more likely to come from low-income families and to be children of color.  

The move would double down on a change made last year, when the district switched from a single admissions lottery in January to three lotteries. Last year, 70 percent of seats were available in the January lottery, but 30 percent were held for lotteries in March and April. The new proposal calls for going further by reserving half the seats at magnet schools for the March and April lotteries.

When the board voted on the change to admissions rules last fall, there was strong momentum behind the move to change magnet lottery rules, following a Chalkbeat and IndyStar series on segregation in schools that found the district’s most popular programs primarily served privileged students. But there was also resistance from some parents, many of whom came from neighborhoods that lost their edge in gaining entry to popular schools.

It’s unclear whether board members will be willing to risk more backlash from parents who have the means to travel to other districts or pay private school tuition. The board did not vote on the latest lottery proposal, and it received mixed feedback.

Board member Diane Arnold said she supports holding more seats for later lotteries when more children of color apply.

“I like the fact that we are looking at playing with those percentages … connecting that to equity and trying to get more children engaged in those programs,” she said.

But board member Kelly Bentley was more skeptical. Equity is important, she said, but if parents don’t know whether their children are admitted to their top choice school until late April, they might choose another school.

“That’s a … loss of a student and a loss of revenue to the district,” she said. “I think we need to be very careful on making any changes.”

Indianapolis schools divided

School districts across the country are breaking apart, but Indianapolis is already divided

PHOTO: EdBuild
The report on school district secession was released Wednesday.

Communities across the U.S. are breaking away from larger urban districts, exacerbating segregation by race and class and draining money from school systems with the highest needs, according to a new report.

“This isn’t a story of one or two communities,” said Rebecca Sibilia, CEO of Edbuild, which released the report Wednesday. “This is about a broken system of laws that fail to protect the most vulnerable students.”

So far, the phenomenon of school district “secession” has largely bypassed Indianapolis, in part because the city’s schools are already separate — 10 districts surround Indianapolis Public Schools. That’s by design: State lawmakers wanted to avoid local backlash, so they chose not to merge school districts when Indianapolis and Marion County unified in 1970 under “Unigov.”

The national report from EdBuild, a nonprofit research group focusing on education funding and inequality, highlights districts across the country that have had some of the most dramatic secessions. A particularly egregious example is when six suburban towns within Shelby County split off from the Memphis school system. In Tennessee, municipalities with at least 1,500 students can secede if a majority of local voters approve.

Unlike Tennessee and other states where secession is common, Indiana law is less friendly to breakaway districts. If a community wants to split from a larger district, they must have the backing of a county committee, the Indiana State Board of Education and 55 percent of local voters, the report said. During that process, state and county officials have to consider how that move would affect school finances.

Since 2000, just one attempt at district secession has occurred within the state. The East Madison school district tried to secede from Anderson Community Schools in 2012, but the move was defeated.

There have not been any efforts for school districts to secede in Marion County, where they are already highly fragmented. In fact, the decision not to unify schools when the city and county merged has had far reaching effects.

As Chalkbeat reported in a story last year, the courts would later call that decision discriminatory, and it was a primary argument a federal judge cited in 1971 when he ordered desegregation busing of IPS students across school district lines into the townships. The program began in 1981 and ended last June.

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.”

You can find EdBuild’s interactive graphic here and the entire report here.