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Three districts, one county: Some context on education in Lexington, Thomasville, and Davidson County

Recently, EdNC posted two articles celebrating the effort that local educators and elected officials are making in Lexington City Schools and Davidson County Schools. While those articles focused on the important work that is being done in two school districts, any discussion of education in Davidson County should begin with some important context; specifically, that the county’s student population of approximately 25,000 is divided among three racially and socio-economically disparate school districts.

In North Carolina, just four counties maintain a system of three separate school districts. Although multiple districts in a single county could theoretically sustain diverse schools and efficient and equitable educational resources, this is too often not the case. As the UNC Center for Civil Rights noted in its 2014 report, The State of Exclusion: Davidson County, NC, Davidson County’s three separate school districts are unfortunately marked by significant racial segregation and disparities in academic achievement.

In 2013, researchers from Duke University found that Davidson County was home to the second most segregated schools in the state, behind only Halifax, another county with three racially segregated school districts.1 As that same study concluded, “counties with multiple districts are particularly susceptible to imbalance, because racially disparate districts make some racial imbalance impossible to avoid.”2 During the 2014-2015 school year, there were 25,153 students attending the three districts across Davidson County. Lexington City Schools served just 3,044 of these students. Lexington City’s student population was 33.2 percent Latino, 30.1 percent African American, and 25.6 percent white. Thomasville City Schools served an even smaller student population, at just 2,392. Again, a majority of students in the district were non-white—30.4 percent Latino, 37.8 percent African American, and 24.4 percent white. In staggering contrast, Davidson County Schools served 19,717 students in 2014-2015, 85.3 percent of them white, 3.4 percent African American, and 7.6 percent Latino.

Taken together, Lexington City Schools and Thomasville City Schools served just 21.6 percent of all public school students in Davidson County last year. However, 73 percent of the county’s African American students and 53.8 percent of its Latino students attended these two city school districts.

This racial segregation is exacerbated by the fact that the Lexington and Thomasville city school district boundaries do not match up with municipal boundaries. In some areas of south Lexington, where the African-American population is smaller than in the city’s center, schoolchildren attend Davidson County Schools rather than Lexington City Schools.

Meanwhile, the city school district extends to serve some communities with higher non-white populations outside the city limits, to the north and west of Lexington. In Thomasville, the city school district is significantly smaller than the town itself. Thomasville City Schools serves the town center, where African-American and Latino populations are higher, but does not extend to areas in the northern and southern portions of the town where residents are predominantly white. While this is partially attributable to the fact that the school district has not expanded along with the town itself, the school district lines have also been altered to increase racial segregation. In 1955, the North Carolina General Assembly voted to allow Davidson County Schools to transfer two majority African American schools to the Thomasville city district,3 further entrenching the racial segregation that exists to this day.

The racial segregation of schools in Davidson County is accompanied by economic isolation as well. During the 2013-2014 school year, 88.2 percent of Lexington City students and 91.9 percent of Thomasville City students were eligible for free and reduced lunch (FRL). In 2014- 2015, all schools in the Thomasville City district took part in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision, a program that grants school-level FRL eligibility to schools serving high-poverty attendance zones, in lieu of individual students filing FRL applications. In both of the past two school years, only 48 percent of students in the Davidson County Schools system have been FRL eligible.

The stark racial segregation and economic isolation of students in Davidson County’s three school districts is matched by deep academic achievement disparities. During the 2014- 2015 school year, Davidson County Schools saw 58.7 percent of its students pass their End-of-Grade (EOG) exams, outpacing the statewide average of 56.3 percent. The city school districts did not fare as well. 48.3 percent of students passed their EOGs in Lexington City Schools, while just 44 percent passed in Thomasville City Schools. As students struggle in the city school districts, many teachers are leaving. Data from 2014-2015 shows that Lexington City Schools had the seventh highest teacher turnover rate in the state, at 24.7 percent, while Thomasville City Schools had the eleventh highest, at 21.4 percent. The 9.3 percent teacher turnover rate in Davidson County Schools was twelfth lowest in the state.

Racial segregation and uneven academic achievement persist in schools across Davidson County, even as the Lexington City and Thomasville City districts continue to spend significant funds on education. While Davidson County Schools had the lowest per-pupil expenditure in the state during the 2013-2014 school year, Lexington City Schools’ per-pupil expenditure of $9,628.13 was 34th in the state. Thomasville City Schools had an even higher per-pupil expenditure of $9,960.30 (good for 27th in the state). It is critical however, to disaggregate these numbers. Both city school districts were near the middle of the pack in state and local funding, but were among the top fifteen in the state in federal education allocations. Thomasville City Schools was behind only Halifax County Public Schools and Washington County Schools in the amount of federal dollars received per pupil, a direct reflection of the concentrations of low-wealth students these districts serve.

As the U.S. Department of Education observed in its Guidance on the Voluntary Use of Race to Achieve Diversity and Avoid Racial Isolation in Elementary and Secondary Schools, “[r]acially diverse schools provide incalculable educational and civic benefits.” When schools become as racially isolated as they are in Davidson County, however, “they may fail to provide the full panoply of benefits that K-12 schools can offer. The academic achievement of students at racially isolated schools often lags behind that of their peers. . . . Racially isolated schools often have fewer effective teachers, higher teacher turnover rates, less rigorous curricular resources, and inferior facilities and other educational resources.” And perhaps most significantly, “[r]educing racial isolation in schools is also important because students who are not exposed to racial diversity in school often lack other opportunities to interact with students from different racial backgrounds.”

None of this is to take away from the significant efforts being made within these districts to improve student outcomes. However, those efforts will necessarily be limited by the social and fiscal realities of the multi-district delivery system that divides students by race, ethnicity, and class. 

Show 3 footnotes

  2. Id. at 14.
  3. 1955 N.C. Sess. Laws 685–86.
Brent Ducharme

Brent Ducharme is an Attorney-Fellow at the UNC Center for Civil Rights.