By the Editorial Board
Jun 12, 2016
Before St. Louis ends its school desegregation program, a review of its remarkable history is in order, along with a commitment to finish the job.
The Post-Dispatch’s Elisa Crouch reported Friday that the governing board of the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation is considering phasing out the 33-year-old city-county transfer program.
She quoted Keith Marty, superintendent of the Parkway School District: “There’s always going to be a need to do something with children and families differently. We have to start talking about it as a region. Poverty isn’t going away.”
Precisely. The Government Accountability Office reported last month that one in six U.S. public schools has 75 percent or more poor and black or Hispanic students. These schools “offered disproportionately fewer math, science, and college preparatory courses and had disproportionately higher rates of students who were held back in 9th grade, suspended, or expelled,” the GAO said.
In a city whose population is 47.5 percent black, the student population of St. Louis Public Schools is 82 percent black. In many schools, the black enrollment is well over 90 percent. The demographics, and school performance measures, are no better and sometimes worse in some north St. Louis County districts.
There’s still work to do.
In 1968, long before the desegregation program began here, a commission led by state Rep. James Spainhower to review school funding inequities in Missouri recommended establishing a metro-wide school district. As long as school funding was heavily determined by local tax bases, the commission determined, educational opportunity would depend on where you live.
The idea was massively unpopular. But in the early 1980s, U.S. District Judge William Hungate used the threat of forcibly consolidating city and county school districts as a stick to get suburban districts to embrace the transfer program voluntarily. The carrot he offered was state funding to pay for it.
Two state attorneys general who later went on to higher office, Republican John Ashcroft and Democrat Jay Nixon, fought the program relentlessly. Meanwhile, the first of what would be 60,000 city kids transferred to county schools and got better educations.
In 1999, in something of a miracle, city taxpayers, community leaders and the state Legislature came together to continue the program. William L. Taylor, an NAACP lawyer, would say, “Both from a financial and an educational standpoint, the St. Louis settlement is the best of any school district in the nation.”
The desegregation program is something to be proud of. It wasn’t intended to last forever, but like racial intolerance itself, the problems have been hard to root out.
This is not the time to quit. This is the time to double down. It bears repeating what Marty, the Parkway superintendent, said: “We have to start talking about it as a region. Poverty isn’t going away.”