MALIBU, California—For years, Craig Foster, a retired Wall Street executive turned public school activist, has been zipping up and down the Pacific Coast Highway seeking support for a split between Malibu, the mostly wealthy, mostly white city of beachfront bungalows and modernist mansions, and Santa Monica, the equally picturesque but less moneyed city that shares its school district.
Foster insists that once Malibu is independent from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, the city could roll out a K-12 foreign language program, beef up middle-school soccer and maybe even design an international baccalaureate track for the city's four schools.
The idea has been met with much enthusiasm in Malibu, where parents have long sought more autonomy from the increasingly diverse district.
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But it has not been received as well in Santa Monica, home to all seven of the school board members and close to 85 percent of the school district residents, who would need to approve the split.
And that has presented a considerable hurdle until this year, when Foster and his team began trying a new approach: attempting to convince Santa Monica that it, too, could benefit from going solo. If this approach works, it could offer an enticing template for other wealthy districts around the country that have sought independence from their less well-off partners but have been stymied by allegations that they are looking out for their own children at the expense of other people's kids.
It's too early to tell if the new strategy will be successful and if local civil rights activists will mount their own campaign to thwart a split that would create a predominately white school district in a state that is now mostly minority. But so far, Foster says he and his allies are making major inroads.
On a recent fall evening, Foster, who heads the 3-year-old non-profit Advocates for Malibu Public Schools, outlined the strategy to a group of parents inside City Hall.
"We have come to a very, I think, heartwarming conclusion that what we needed to do is reach out to the stakeholders in both cities and say: 'Look, this is great for all of us. Let's band together and do this.'"
He tapped on a PowerPoint screen with a chart showing how much money his group predicted Santa Monica would gain annually for its own school budget if Malibu were to leave. "$1.9 million," it read. The figure came from a comprehensive impact report by WestEd, a non-partisan, education consulting firm.
Later, before parents shuffled out the door, Foster added: "We should soon enter a place where Santa Monica steps forward and says: 'We want to separate.' "
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In recent years, "separatist movements" like the one Foster is leading have become increasingly common, as parents in mostly white, mostly middle-class communities in and around Memphis, Salt Lake City, Baton Rouge and Dallas have sought to break away from their more economically and racially diverse school districts.
Like Foster, these parents say they are eager to detach themselves from overly bureaucratic school administrations. Others worry that their association with schools that serve at-risk students hurts property values. All cite a desire for more local control.
Many say they are acting out of anger and frustration. Malibu parents admit they are no strangers to what they half-jokingly refer to as the "tantrum approach." But that has not helped them achieve the autonomy they want, hence the new tactic.
And from a strategic standpoint, that is what is setting this Southern California separatist movement apart.
Parent Teacher Student Association president Karen Farrer, a long-time advocate for the Malibu split, says there is a long list of reasons why Malibu wants to leave.
There was the time, a few years back, when parents lost their impassioned bid to turn Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School into a charter, which Foster refers to as a "heart-breaking failure." There is rage over the district's handling of potentially toxic PCB discoveries in at least two of Malibu's schools. And there is a general feeling that with no representation on the school board and 19 miles of often-clogged but scenic highway separating the two cities, leaders in Santa Monica don't really care what is happening at Malibu schools. It is a claim that the superintendent, Sandra Lyon, and many school board members would contest.
But perhaps most agitating to Malibu parents was a recent a change in the district's PTA fundraising policy, spearheaded by its new superintendent, to create more equitable offerings between schools. The policy has outraged Malibu parents, because it now prohibits them from a long-held practice of pumping private dollars into schools for the hiring of teaching aides, something many Santa Monica schools could not afford to do.
Farrer says outsiders often look at the two cities and assume that Malibu has the upper hand. "They have always looked at us as an elite, pampered place and, in a lot of cases, our conditions are substandard," she said of Malibu's public schools. "We are geographically isolated and outnumbered."
Malibu does have more money. The median household income is $135,530, according to the United States Census Bureau, close to double that of Santa Monica. And Santa Monica educates more at-risk students. About 30 percent of the students at Santa Monica High School, which is 41 percent white, receive free or reduced lunch, compared with 12 percent at Malibu High School, which is about 80 percent white.
But with 12,861 residents—compared to Santa Monica's 92,472—it has been historically challenging for Malibu parents to get their residents on the seven-member school board. The last Malibu parent elected to the board was in 2004. And Malibu parents say "in living memory," they've never had more than one member at a time.
Two years ago, Farrer, Foster and a third parent ran for school board on what Foster refers to as an "outsider" platform. None won. This year, Foster, who is running again and believes that earlier campaign may have been too negative, is taking a cheerier tone even as he pushes for a district split. "I am here to do what is best for all students," he tells voters as he drives around the two cities.
Advocates who assist communities seeking to break away from larger more diverse districts contend that these grassroots separatist campaigns can be very democratic because they often result in more parental say in life at the neighborhood school.
"It puts the control in the hands of the parents," said Lionel Rainey, a political strategist whose firm, LR3 Consulting, is advising parents in one Baton Rouge area community that is also seeking its own school district.
But critics like Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, consider them deeply troubling, mostly because so many communities around the country are already divided along racial and economic lines. Today, American schools are more segregated than they were in 1968, according to a recently released report by Orfield's organization.
"These parents think they are protecting their kids," said Orfield. "But what they are doing is leaving their children unprepared for the society in which they are going to live and work."
Rochelle Fanali, the president of the PTA Council—an umbrella organization of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District PTA's, calls the Malibu plan "more of a private school vision" and says it won't be easy. The district utilizes dollars from a parcel tax and the sale of several bonds that will have to be divided if there is a split. "The big issue with separation is we don't know what it looks like," said Fanali. "We have really entangled finances."
To put the plan into effect, the city will have to garner signatures from 25 percent of the affected population and then present its case to the Los Angeles County Office of Education and the California State Board of Education before eventually bringing it to a vote, which people on all sides say could take years.
Despite these hesitations, Foster says he's seeing progress.
At least one school board member, Nimish Patel, has come out in favor of the split, saying he is very sympathetic to Malibu's plight. "I really understand why they would be frustrated not having a board member," he said.
And in the fall, Foster says, the group won a significant victory when Lyon included a note about the possible split in the online back-to-school email sent out to parents. The district also announced it was commissioning its own feasibility study on the issue.
Around the country, it is state legislatures that govern laws about district fissures, and in some communities where parents have sought a school district split, appeasing the other side has not been necessary. The cities and towns wanting to split have been big enough and mobilized enough to win the necessary votes, or have managed to bring state legislatures to their side, in some cases passing legislation that would fast-track the divorces.
Foster says he believes his group has little chance of changing California law, which makes the split process time consuming, under the best of circumstances, such as when residents are in favor, and nearly impossible if there is serious opposition. That's why he's trying to win universal support.
He added that the time and energy these officials have had to spend on disgruntled residents from Malibu begging for an out may end up playing a significant role in Santa Monica's decision to support the break. "This isn't just local control for us," he said. "It's local control for them. Managing an empire has got to be a big pain in the butt."
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.