This year is different because of COVID-19, but most years I spend a fair amount of time sitting in my car in the parking lot of one of my kids’ schools, waiting to pick them up from practice of one kind or another.
I sit there with other parents, scrolling through our phones as we wait, and occasionally I spy a taxi cab or two, there to pick up students who attend Rockwood schools but live in the city of St. Louis. Those students attend schools 45 minutes or so from their homes under the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation program, the desegregation system started in the St. Louis region in 1982 as a result of a federal lawsuit over educational disparities.
Those taxi cabs, and the students they are waiting for, are a reminder that the disparities in education between Black and white that led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, still exist.
In fact, in a new report titled Still Separate, Still Unequal, the Forward Through Ferguson nonprofit highlights structural deficiencies in the school districts in the St. Louis region, and blames them for our ongoing failure in which white children consistently get better access to quality schools than Black children do.
This is not just another report to sit on the shelf examining how white students tend to score better on standardized tests than Black students. This is a report that, perhaps for the first time in St. Louis, or at least since the Spainhower Commission study in the 1960s, examines the root causes of that disparity. They are: funding, created by an over-reliance on property taxes; and the divisions created by having 29 separate school districts spread over St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles County, the areas the report examined.
“The right diagnosis is essential for the right treatment,” says Karishma Furtado, one of the report’s authors. Three numbers from the report help tell the story of education disparity in St. Louis. When comparing majority white vs. majority Black school districts, white districts receive $1,698 more per student; the best funded white district spends $8,412 more per child than the best funded black district; and 82% of funding for white school districts comes from local sources, compared with 58% for majority Black districts. That last number means Black districts are more likely to be hurt when state funding dries up or is cut.
Fundamentally, says David Dwight, executive director of Forward Through Ferguson, the report shows that the way the state of Missouri funds schools is broken, highlighted by the rare occasion in which the Legislature fully funds the foundation formula that determines how much local schools get from the state. And because the schools are funded with property taxes, and majority Black districts are in communities with lower tax bases, the disparity is cooked into the system.
The report doesn’t call for specific solutions, but the creation of local and statewide task forces to start studying the problem and build a political groundswell of support for change. That could include school consolidation or property tax pooling, either of which would more fairly invest taxpayers across the St. Louis region in the success of all students.
The report had research help from University of Iowa historian Colin Gordon, whose 2008 book Mapping Decline tells the story of urban decay and segregation in St. Louis, aided by constant reinvestment in the central corridor while neighborhoods to the north and south were ignored. A similar disinvestment has been happening in schools for decades, aided by the historic divisions in St. Louis through which those with wealth horde it, to the disadvantage of the next generation of Black students.
“We have dug out the earth under poor Black students to shore up the ground under wealthy White students,” write the report’s authors, who conclude that the very structure of educational systems in St. Louis, and the state of Missouri, particularly funding models, are broken. “At the heart of why we allow these injustices to persist are deeply held prejudices about who deserves an education, who is teachable and to what extent, and where, as a result, we are justified in investing resources — or not. This is the self-sustaining interplay between implicit bias and structural racism.”
From City Hall to the Capitol, metro columnist Tony Messenger shines light on what public officials are doing, tells stories of the disaffected, and brings voice to the issues that matter.