Thursday, December 23, 2010

St. Louis Public Schools (2)

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post in which I tried to take stock of the challenges facing the St. Louis Public School system, as I understood them.

That blog post was influenced by some of my introductory experiences with SLPS as a parent, as well as by Daniel J. Monti’s book A Semblance of Justice, which takes a somewhat cynical view of the school desegregation efforts that have occurred in the St. Louis area.

I had found Monti’s book after reading Common Ground, J. Anthony Lukas’s celebrated account of school desegregation in Boston. I was looking for something that would explain and analyze St. Louis’s school desegregation with similar perceptiveness and rigor. But in comparison to Lukas’s gripping and incredibly informative narrative, Monti’s book felt abstruse and opaque—and it took for granted that its readers already understood the basic facts of the situation.

I was born in 1976 and grew up in Lindbergh school district, though I attended Catholic schools. Although the desegregation case was being negotiated and settled in my formative years, I had only a vague notion of its origins and a general understanding of its purpose and meaning.

Through an old article in the Riverfront Times I discovered another book on St. Louis school desegregation, Stepping Over the Color Line: African American Students in White Suburban Schools, by Amy Stuart Wells and Robert L. Crain. This book, published by Yale University Press in 1997, finally gave me what I was looking for: deep background on the roots of school desegregation in St. Louis; a clear description of the voluntary interdistrict transfer program; an analysis of its execution and consequences; a sense of how St. Louisans, black, white, urban, and suburban, felt about the program; and an understanding of the political realities involved with the program.

After reading this book, I took another look at my previous post about SLPS. I’m surprised and gratified to find that much of it still seems true. But Wells and Crain’s book has given me a much deeper context for understanding the issues I was struggling with.

Most significantly, I have a more nuanced response to Daniel J. Monti’s central thesis, as I understood it: that the desegregation program was mostly a symbolic gesture that purported to address deep-seated issues of inequality while in actuality not doing much to deliver justice.

On the one hand, I can see Monti’s point. I was startled to read, near the end of Stepping Over the Color Line, that in a representative year of the deseg program (1993), it consumed only 3 percent of the state’s total budget, compared to the separate 25 percent of the state budget that went to education. Though politicians may have used the program demagogically as a symbol of government waste and handouts to the undeserving black poor, in the end the amount of the budget devoted to the desgregation program was relatively small. And many black students, victims of Missouri’s long and ongoing pattern of unequal housing, educational, and employment opportunity, did not benefit at all from the program.

On the other hand, many of those who did participate in the program did benefit significantly. I’ve met several of them since I wrote my original post, actually. Wells and Crain, in addition to documenting convincingly that black city students benefit from attending suburban schools, also show the falseness of the alternative that opponents of the program often proposed: to use the deseg money to fix up the city schools instead. Politically, that was never an option. The deseg money was there because the courts forced the state to provide it.

Or, more accurately, the suburban and city school districts that agreed on the out-of-court settlement, in combination with the courts, forced the state of Missouri (which refused to participate in the settlement talks) to provide the money.

These St. Louis-area school districts agreed to the settlement not because they acknowledged that they had helped to create a racially unjust system and wanted to atone for their sins. Instead they agreed to the settlement because (1) they didn’t want to risk losing local control of their district, and (2) they realized that the settlement would mean lots of money for them. (And thus the settlement proved a fact of politics that I’ve come to understand: For the poor to get anything, the middle-class and wealthy have to get something too.)

In my original post, I explored the idea that the St. Louis Public Schools were the biggest losers in the desegregation settlement. My reasoning was that they had lost some of their best students and most committed parents, while also having to open up some of their most coveted spots to white county students. But, having read Wells and Crain, I now see that in fact SLPS saw significant gains from the settlement: for each student who left the district for one in the county, SLPS still received 50 percent of the funds they would normally have spent on that student. In addition, SLPS got additional funding for curriculum development, personnel, and capital improvements; and for the creation and maintenance of the magnet school program.

The biggest losers, I now realize, were the county districts—like Wellston, Jennings, Normandy, and others—that were “on the wrong side” of the lawsuit, according to one of the SLPS lawyers involved in the case. They were on the wrong side because they were already predominantly black and therefore received none of the money that flowed to the city and the rest of the county during the desegregation project. They were basically in the same plight as the all-black schools and neighborhoods in the city, yet they received no help from the state in the desegregation agreement.

SLPS, Wells and Crain helped me see, were both victims and perpetrators of segregation and attempts to remedy it. They created a separate and unequal system before Brown v. Board of Education and were slow and ineffective in dismantling it after that 1954 decision. At the same time, they were also in a bind because of the racial politics of the time, with rapid white flight (often spurred by racial fear) from the city and intense racially motivated demands from the white families who remained. They were stuck with the challenge of educating a largely racially segregated and impoverished population—stuck with this challenge by the suburban districts who thrived on the tax base that St. Louis County sucked out of the city. Yet the city schools often did a mediocre job, at best, of actually using their resources to help that population. This mediocrity is not surprising when one considers not only the daunting nature of the task, but also that in the late 1980s and early 1990s the school board included a powerful contingent of anti-desegregation members with ties to a local white supremacist group.

For that reason, in addition to the suburban districts that were largely African American, the black students left behind in neighborhood schools also got the rawest deal in the desegregation agreement. It’s understandable, from that perspective, that a group of black city dwellers would turn against the program. Their views were shared by Freeman Bosley, Jr., who found an anti-desegregation stance a useful political strategy for capturing both black and white votes and becoming the first African American mayor of the city.

As Wells and Crain acknowledge, there were political casualties of the desegregation agreement, and significant monetary benefits went to the very suburban districts who had helped to create the problem in the first place. (Though many suburbanites were ignorant of this basic fact.) Yet the book convinces me that the St. Louis city-county voluntary transfer program was something extraordinary. It was a real if small step in the direction of justice, one that gave black students a real chance, in fact, to achieve success in the way that conservatives always prescribe—to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

After all, don’t the images of black students standing on deserted corners by despair-filled housing projects waiting at 5:30 a.m. for buses to take them on the long ride to school call to mind other famous bootstrap examples of black Americans who endured discomfort and hardship in order to grasp the rare chance at an education?

Think of Frederick Douglass learning to read with the cast-off books of his master’s son. Or Booker T. Washington sleeping under a sidewalk while on a walking journey to a school that would be open to him. Or Ralph Ellison hopping a freight car in order to make his way to Tuskegee Institute because he couldn’t afford to get there any other way.

For the most part, however, white suburban St. Louisans didn’t see it that way. They just saw those students’ long journeys as a waste of money. Or they focused on the taxi cabs that took home the ones who had to stay late for some athletic contest or disciplinary consequence. Or they felt pity for the transfer student, a pity born of an aesthetic distaste for such a seemingly nonsensical arrangement—without understanding the much more disturbing nonsense of the historical and present color line in St. Louis.

With the desegregation plan set to end in 2014, what is next? Do all of the resources that went to provide at least a semblance of justice to black students simply melt back into the general budget for the state, or get returned to the taxpayers?

It’s clear that ignoring the educational problems caused by segregation does not work. In recent years, a number of the virtually all-black suburban districts passed over by the desegregation settlement have lost their accreditation, and the Supreme Court has ruled that parents in those districts have a right to send their kids to schools elsewhere. It’s the same issue that led to the desegregation settlement that will end in three years. The underlying racial, economic, and political realities have not really changed. It’s just that now the conflict is even more pronounced within St. Louis County.

Looking at a district like Wellston or Riverview Gardens, one realizes that, were it not for all the desegregation money pouring in from the state, SLPS would be in much, much worse shape than it is today. If middle-class whites (like my family) are to some degree moving in to the city, surely it has something to do with the fact that there’s still some hope left for the district. Would that be the case if not for the desegregation arrangement?

Reading Wells and Crain, however, I also come to understand more deeply how even well-meaning whites get caught inexorably in a system that perpetuates racial inequality. As the city scrambles for students, competing with private schools and charter schools and the ever-present alternative of exodus to the suburbs, and the racial balance requirements for the magnet schools fade, the best schools in the city system become whiter. This happens because white parents, who tend to have more connections, more time to make pestering phone calls, and more personal and cultural resources, will naturally do all they can to give their children the best chance at a worthwhile education.

From one perspective, there’s nothing wrong with that—just as there’s nothing wrong with a family moving to a suburban neighborhood that’s safer and has better schools. Yet, from another perspective, it’s exactly what perpetuates racial inequality, and exactly what led to the lawsuit that eventuated in the desegregation agreement.

Apart from straight-up racism, much of St. Louis whites’ distaste for the desegregation plan comes from the loss of local control (which feels to many like a basic American tenet) and a sense that the government is unfairly giving something to someone who hasn’t earned it. What this perspective misses, though, is how long the government unfairly took away something—opportunity in education, housing, and employment—from African Americans, how recently it stopped doing so, how long the legacy of that injustice will take to remedy, and what type of steps will need to be taken in order to do so.

For St. Louisans, these perspectives are a determinative part of “the cultural framework through which they view the world,” to use a phrase from Wells and Crain. In our segregated city, it’s all too easy for whites and blacks to develop quite different frameworks and thus to respond to the world in very different ways. The voluntary transfer program forced white St. Louisans to think about their frameworks. Some, Wells and Crain show, responded by becoming resistors, actively criticizing the program and hoping it would go away. Others became sympathizers, feeling a sense of charity toward the transfer students but no real strong enthusiasm for the notion of desegregation. A smaller group, mostly teachers, became visionaries, embracing the new perspectives offered by desegregation and changing their own behaviors in ways that ended up making life better for everyone involved, not only the transfer students.

As I finish reading Stepping Over the Color Line, I ask myself what my own response has been. On the one hand, I’ve largely been on the sidelines: educated in parochial, Catholic schools, I now teach in a prestigious and very predominantly white private Catholic school. In that school’s library, a reading room is named in honor of Daniel Schlafly, an alumnus who sent his own kids to Catholic schools but spent decades on the St. Louis school board, playing an important but ultimately ambiguous role.

There are many things I love about the school where I teach (of which I am also an alumnus), yet I also recognize how it is implicated in the racial injustice of the St. Louis area. I love the city magnet school my daughters attend, but I understand the privilege my white family has secured by obtaining coveted spots in this school while other city students are mired in failing, segregated schools.

What might “being a visionary” mean for me?

This past semester, for the first time, I taught an African American literature class. I learned a lot, not only from the large amount of reading I did to prepare for the course, but also from talking about race every day with a group of high school seniors that was 25 percent black (much higher than the overall percentage of black students in the school). For me, teaching that course is part of being a visionary, but it can’t be the end. After reading Stepping Over the Color Line, I realize that I need to do more. I need to get involved with the student group at my school that works to promote intercultural understanding. I need to get on the diversity committee at my daughters’ school, to help ensure that this great school doesn’t become a haven only for white students.

And I need to keep reading.


Zorakw said...

I am currently trying to decide where to send my son, who will be 3 in March 2011. I learned a lot from your post. Thanks for sharing. I used to write about the dese program when I worked for the St. Louis American. If you don't mind, what magnet school does your daughter attend? I know my son is too young to go there now, but perhaps I can add it to my list of places to investigate in the future. Trying to decide where to send him is one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make.

framiko said...

My daughter goes to Kennard Classical Junior Academy. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Thanks for your comments on the post!

Zorakw said...

Thanks for sharing your information. I have heard of Kennard. While visiting Stix Early Childhood, a parent told me to get my son tested when he is old enough so that I can apply to Kennard. Now, SLPS will have a second school that will offer gifted education, Mallinckrodt, because there is such a long waiting list for Kennard. So at least there are two options now. Out of all the schools I have visited, we have narrowed down our list to three: Stix (SLPS Early Education School); University City Children's Center (it's been described as both daycare and preschool); and New City School (private). I've already applied to Stix and U-City and currently filling out the application for New City so that we can have some options.

framiko said...

Some friends of ours have twins at the gifted school at Mallinckrodt. They've been very happy with it so far. We were looking very closely at Stix and might have sent our daughters there, except that it only goes to second grade, and we didn't know where they'd go after that.

Good luck!

Zorakw said...

Thanks. I really appreciate your feedback and your blog post.