In mid-December, ProPublica (in collaboration with the NY Times that printed a shorter version) published Nikole Hannah-Jones’ well-researched history of racial segregation in the St. Louis suburban school districts that include Ferguson, Missouri. The police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson last summer brought the public’s attention, once again, to the many ways that racial injustice is structured into our society’s core institutions.
In the fall, this blog highlighted Richard Rothstein’s fine piece in The American Prospect (with a more detailed version published by the Economic Policy Institute) about many of the ways public policies have shaped the lives of the black residents of suburban St. Louis: “St. Louis was segregated by interlocking and racially explicit public policies of zoning, public housing, and suburban finance, and by publicly endorsed segregation policies of realty, banking, and insurance industries. These government policies interacted with public labor market policies that denied African Americans access to jobs that comparably skilled whites obtained. When all of these mutually reinforcing public policies conspired with private prejudice to turn St. Louis’s African American communities into slums, public officials razed those slums to devote acreage to more profitable (and less unsightly) uses. African Americans who were displaced then relocated to the few other places available, converting towns like Ferguson into new segregated enclaves.”
What Rothstein does not cover is school segregation. For a long time I have been aware of a long-running battle over expanding opportunity for black children in the St. Louis area through public school integration programs that ultimately failed. The articles in my clipping file were spotty, however, and I could never piece together the complete story. Hannah-Jones’ research fills the gaps in this painful and tragic history. The public schools where Michael Brown lived near Ferguson, Missouri are part of the Normandy School District, Hannah-Jones’ subject.
“Few places better reflect the rise and fall of attempts to integrate U.S. schools than St. Louis and its suburbs,” writes Hannah-Jones. “The Normandy school district from which (Michael) Brown graduated is among the poorest and most segregated in Missouri. It ranks last in overall academic performance. Its rating on an annual state assessment was so dismal that by the time Brown graduated the district had lost its accreditation. About half of black male students at Normandy High never graduate. Just one in four graduates enters a four-year college. The college where Brown was headed is a troubled for-profit trade-school that a U.S. Senate report said targeted students for their ‘vulnerabilities….” “A mere five miles down the road from Normandy…. the Clayton Public Schools are predominantly white, with almost no poverty to speak of. The district is regularly ranked among the top 10 percent in the state. More than 96 percent of students graduate. Fully 84 percent of graduates head to four-year universities.”
“In 1954, the year of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, St. Louis ran the second-largest segregated school district in the country. In the face of the ruling, school officials promised to integrate voluntarily. But they redrew school district lines around distinctly black and white neighborhoods to preserve their segregated schools.” In 1981, a judge, “responded by threatening to do the one thing the white suburbs feared more than the busing plan: Dissolve the carefully constructed school district boundaries and merge all 24 of the discrete districts into a single metro-wide one.” Finally to avoid county-wide integration, in 1983, the city school district and its suburbs launched an inter-district enrollment policy: “At its peak, some 15,000 St. Louis public school students a year went to school in 16 heavily white suburban districts. Another 1,300 white students headed the opposite direction to new, integrated magnet schools in St. Louis.” After years’ of legal challenges, the program was undermined when it was made voluntary in 1999. “Districts soon began to drop out of the program, and the number of students participating steadily dwindled.”
Suburban St. Louis has experienced white and middle class flight not only from the city but also from its inner-ring suburbs, including the Normandy School District. As poverty increased and school achievement lagged, the state began to punish the school districts struggling to raise school achievement. In 2009, the state closed Wellston School District next door and merged it with Normandy. Hannah-Jones writes, “Merging two impoverished, struggling systems made sense to almost no one, especially the officials in charge of Normandy’s schools. The state went forward with it anyway.” “The students were not going to be absorbed into any of the high-performing, mostly white districts nearby… (A) state board of education official was blunt about why: ‘You’d have had a civil war.'”
Two year later in 2011, performance had dropped so low in the Normandy District that the state removed the district’s accreditation, which “triggered a state law requiring that any student there be allowed to transfer to an accredited district nearby.” But nobody wanted the students. Parents in neighboring districts protested with one white parent proclaiming, “The issue wasn’t about race… ‘but trash.'” The state, however, required the Normandy School District to pay tuition to the accredited school districts for the students who had chosen to transfer from Normandy: “The millions of dollars in payments to other districts drained Normandy’s finances. Within months, the district shuttered an elementary school and laid off 40 percent of its staff. Already deeply troubled, the Normandy schools were headed to insolvency.”
Early last summer (2014) the state stepped in, purportedly to help the totally broke Normandy School District, but it addressed neither the school district’s financial crisis nor the academic plight of its students. The state took over the district and reconstituted it into the Normandy Schools Collaborative. “As a new educational entity, state officials said, the district got a clean slate. It no longer was unaccredited but operated under a newly created status as a ‘state oversight district.’ The transfer program, the state claimed, no longer applied. One by one, transfer districts announced that Normandy children were no longer welcome.”
After Normandy parents filed a legal complaint, a court has stayed the new plan with a temporary injunction. The story’s ending, however, is clear and tragic. Nobody including the state of Missouri intends to undo the financial catastrophe the state of Missouri created for the already struggling Normandy School District. Nobody intends to welcome or assist the students stranded in the Normandy Schools Collaborative. There is neither the political will to address school segregation by race and class in the suburbs of St. Louis nor to examine and ameliorate the race and class segregation embedded in cities and suburbs across America.
I have briefly summarized Hannah-Jones’ profound article. I urge you to read it carefully.