Sunday, May 17, 2009

St. Louis Public Schools

Reading this article in the Post-Dispatch, struggling with where to send my own daughter to kindergarten next year, and talking with family members about St. Louis schools today has got me thinking about what’s happened to the St. Louis Public School system in the last 30-40 years.

Take these thoughts with a grain of salt, since in some instances I might not really know what I’m talking about.

After reading
Common Ground, J. Anthony Lukas’s brilliant book about desegregation in the Boston public schools, I tried to find a comparable book about desegregation in St. Louis. What I came up with was Daniel J. Monti’s A Semblance of Justice, which I found fairly impenetrable and abstruse.

Monti’s main argument, however, as far as I could make out, was that school desegregation is a "ritualized rebellion," a public ceremony that purports to address deep-seated issues of injustice while actually doing very little to remediate or end them. In doing so, it allows tensions based on class and race to be vented without the disruptions that would probably accompany real social change.

The argument makes a certain amount of sense. But it occurs to me that the desegregation program has had very real negative consequences for St. Louis Public Schools. In a sense, St. Louis Public Schools have borne the brunt of the ritualized rebellion that was desegregation in St. Louis.

County districts, by and large, benefited financially from the plan, as they received significant taxpayer money for the students they accepted from the city.

Private schools benefited from the numbers of city students who decided to pay to attend them instead of going to desegregated city schools.

For city public schools, however, desegregation has been, largely, a lose-lose situation. Subjected to the highest degree of disruption, these schools also lost a good number of students, many from families (both black and white) who were probably pretty resourceful and committed to their children's education. And some of the precious spots in the city’s best schools had to be reserved for county students.

Desegregation combined with other patterns of white flight and suburban sprawl, which drained resources and residents from the city while simultaneously sticking the city with lots of responsibilities for taking care of the neediest people in our community. A plan designed to address inequality (if only ritualistically, as Monti asserts) ended up exacerbating it.

Then charter schools came around. They didn’t have to meet the same test score benchmarks or follow the same rules as the regular schools. So of course they further poached students from the city schools, despite the fact that they had little track record of better results. The idea seemed to be that anything was better than the existing system.

But the underlying social structures and patterns that had weakened the existing school system were not altered.

Now, to some degree, middle-class whites are beginning to move back into the city. At the same time, the district no longer is mandated by the court to maintain a racial balance in its magnet schools—and the magnet schools reserved for gifted and talented students are the ones most attractive to middle-class white parents.

So what happens now?

How will city schools respond? Will the goals of school desegregation be abandoned? Were they unrealistic to begin with—an attempt to use the school system to effect social change, a purpose for which it was ill-equipped? Can the city public schools bring middle-class white parents, with all of their resources and commitment, into the system? If so, what conflicts will arise? Who will benefit? Can this constituency be invited in so that the entire district benefits? Or will another segregated, unequal system arise?

If the city schools can't bring in middle-class whites and offer their children a decent education, then no doubt many of these families will move out to the county once their children attain school age.

It's certainly a conundrum. What am I missing? What do you think?

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