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,” Jeff Wachter said 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—including poverty, special needs, and language challenges—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.”
This post appears courtesy of Chalkbeat Indiana. This article is part of joint project by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Star and WFYI Public Media. Find more stories in the "Schools Divided" series here.