North St. Louis received national coverage following the death of Michael Brown. Since then, however, the area has been largely ignored by the national media. This area includes the St. Louis County city of Normandy, which contains the school district that Brown graduated from. The district had lost its accreditation in 2013, before the shooting, as the Missouri State Board of Education deemed the school unfit to provide instruction to its students.
According to the New York Times, even before becoming unaccredited, Normandy had some of the most segregated, poor-performing schools in the country. This stems from St. Louis being one of the most racially segregated metropolitan areas in the United States.
Due to a history of restrictive covenants and public housing troubles, St. Louis has become racially polarized and still faces the problem of de-facto residential segregation. In the mid- 20th century, before segregation was officially prohibited in the city, there were policies in St. Louis that prohibited resale of white-owned property to, or occupancy by, African Americans.
This history, in addition to other factors such as failed urban renewal policies, led to St. Louis’ current problem with residential segregation, and created school districts with a large majority of either white or black students.
This segregation in schools would not necessarily be a problem if they were all receiving equal education. However, as was shown during the civil rights movement, separate but equal does not exist. This was showcased in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, where the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren declared that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
This disparity in St. Louis schools is further shown by their allocation of resources. The Washington Post ranks Missouri as the third worst state in the country when it comes to the allocation of state and local funding between affluent and poor school districts. St. Louis follows the state trend with districts like Ladue and Clayton receiving more state funding than Normandy and Ferguson. Missouri stands in contrast to their neighboring state, Arkansas, where more money is allocated to poorer districts than wealthy ones.
Another reason that St. Louis educational allocations vary so much is that most of the districts’ money comes from taxes within their own localities. This means that wealthy districts will bring in more money for their schools.
For example, if the median home value in one district is $100,000 and another is $50,000, if they both allocate 1% of their property taxes to schools that means that one district is getting $1,000 per household while the other is only receiving $500. Thus, one school district is receiving twice as much money, even if households are taxed the same.
This allocation difference means some schools receive ample resources and children are pushed to excel, whereas other less funded schools lack resources and teachers have lower expectations for student achievement. In St. Louis, 44 percent of black children attend unaccredited schools compared to four percent of white children.
Normandy, whose score on its 2014 performance report was only 7 percent, has a majority of black and low-income students. State Board of Education member Victor Lenz visited Normandy High School and reported to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he “saw classes where kids were milling around and the teacher was just sitting there.”
The inadequate teaching was further exposed by the comments of high school student Cameron Hensley, who told the Post-Dispatch about his permanent substitute physics teacher who rarely teaches, and his uncertified AP English teacher. Well-qualified teachers are scarce in the Normandy School District and classes are inefficient at teaching students what they need to know.
The Normandy School District stands in stark contrast to the Clayton School District, which is just five miles away. Clayton is predominantly white and has a very low poverty rate. Its schools rank within the top 10 percent of the state. Five miles is the difference between receiving one of the best educations in Missouri and attending one of the worst schools in the entire country.
Over thirty years ago, St. Louis attempted to address segregation in its school systems. In 1983, under a court order, St. Louis began a huge inter-district desegregation initiative. It was one of the most successful in the United States. This initiative allowed thousands of black students to obtain a better education. One of these students was Michael Brown’s mother, who rode a bus from St. Louis to the affluent Ladue School District as an elementary school student.
This initiative did not last. Politicians deemed it too costly and it was slowly abandoned until it was all but forgotten. In fact, Jay Nixon, the current governor of Missouri, was one of the politicians who helped abolish the court order completely—an action that increased inequality and segregation in St. Louis.
In an attempt to help fix these inequalities, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that children from any unaccredited district, such as Normandy, could transfer to higher performing schools. While this may seem like a push in the right direction, it has actually hindered both the Normandy School District and its students.
Normandy faces financial collapse as a result of the large number of students transferring. Due to a legal loophole created by naming Normandy a “state oversight district,” Normandy, instead of the state, is forced to pay tuition to schools that take in their students and provide transportation. This school year, one in four students applied to transfer to other schools, costing the district $1.3 million per month. Allocating this money to transfer students has led to increased teacher layoffs and school closures.
By becoming a “state oversight district,” Normandy is not only forced to pay for transfer students, but is controlled by the state instead of a local school board. Immediately after the state came in, they fired and replaced half of the teachers with new, inexperienced ones who were unable to control their classrooms. While it was an attempt by the state to improve classroom conditions in Normandy, it backfired.
Many students look to escape these conditions by transferring. However, they are disadvantaged if they choose to attend another school as they are forced to travel long distances and face uncertainty as to whether or not they will be able to return to the same school the following year. If they are unable to transfer, then they are trapped in a failed district.
Children that are forced to remain in poor segregated schools are severely impacted. In her December 2014 New York Times article, investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote, “students who spend their careers in segregated schools can look forward to a life on the margins. They are more likely to be poor. They are more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods as adults. Their children are more likely to attend segregated schools, repeating the cycle.”
This trend will most likely continue unless the state addresses these problems. While legislation no longer exists that allows segregation, racial isolation is still prevalent and in need of fixing. Along with looking at desegregation efforts , officials should attempt to fix the issue of resource allocation to different districts.
While state officials recognize that they have a problem with racial inequality in their school systems, they aren’t trying to desegregate. Instead, they are attempting to make these segregated schools equal. This is the exact philosophy that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against in Brown v. Board of Education.
There is not an easy solution to the problems that Missouri faces. Instead of attempting to do the impossible, however, officials should instead try to tackle the issue of racial segregation in schools. While many steps and policies may be needed, they may want to start by implementing a stronger version of their desegregation initiative that took place in the 1980s. Even though some believe that “forced busing” of students to desegregate failed, it didn’t. In fact, at the height of school integration during the 1980s, racial achievement gaps were the narrowest they’ve ever been.
To attempt to fix struggling school districts, the state can pass legislation to increase school funding to struggling schools. Also, officials should turn to the Jennings School District as an example of how to revive a district. Jennings is located next to Normandy and was about to lose accreditation back in 2013. It didn’t, however, and instead the district’s superintendent, Tiffany Anderson, made many decisions that have increased attendance and improved test scores. Some of these include cutting office staff to create money for classrooms, an accelerated middle school program, and more experienced teachers.
Anderson also spends her mornings and afternoons on crossing guard duty across the district to connect with the community. Her philosophy is that schools and communities must have a strong relationship to in order for both to prosper, and it seems to be working. While it may not be as simple as copying the Jennings school district, Missouri has to start somewhere.
Many challenges lay ahead for Missouri. However, if the state does not begin to address its inequalities and assist struggling school districts like Normandy, black children in unaccredited districts will be faced with even more hardships before they leave elementary school.