Editorial: How region reacts to school transfer decisions will stamp St. Louis history

Editorial: How region reacts to school transfer decisions will stamp St. Louis history

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A week ago, in an editorial encouraging parents, students and teachers in the Normandy and Francis Howell school districts to make the best of a difficult situation, one that will involve busing mostly poor, black students from north St. Louis County to the mostly affluent, white St. Charles County suburbs, we observed:

“If adults start mucking things up, the region gets a big black eye.”

This week, the bruise began to form. It started when the second of the two unaccredited school districts in the region followed Normandy’s lead and chose a mostly white suburban district 20 miles away to send students whose parents apply for a transfer. This time it was Riverview Gardens, also in north St. Louis County, choosing to bus students to Mehlville, in far south St. Louis County.

Riverview Gardens is 98 percent black. About 92 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Mehlville is 83 percent white. Only 30 percent of its students are poor enough to qualify for free lunch.

The Mehlville district didn’t exactly respond with open arms, suggesting there was no room at the inn. Class sizes and all that. Sorry.

Then came Thursday night’s public gathering in Cottleville, where too many Francis Howell parents echoed the views of School Board member Mark Lafata, who said, “We don’t want this in Francis Howell.”

Translation: Keep your kids, all of whom we assume are going to be poor, black, violent and underperforming, away from us.

Yes, the adults are in full muck mode.

HISTORIC OPPORTUNITY

But let’s not give up hope. This pivot point in the history of St. Louis is too important to allow raw emotion to derail progress. It’s deep breath time.

Let’s remember why students in Normandy and Riverview Gardens are seeking new schools.

Decades of bad public policy, from real estate redlining, to tax incentives that urged suburban sprawl, to poor education funding and a failure to take poverty seriously, to outright school board corruption, to drugs, and gangs, and bad decisions by parents have created urban school districts poorly equipped to properly educate children. This is a problem decades in the making. It’s not a problem unique to St. Louis. It’s not a Normandy problem or a Riverview Gardens problem. It is much, much bigger than that.

The anger of parents in north St. Louis County who feel abandoned by the system is real, and it is understandable. For years the law has said they could send their children to an accredited school, but they never got the chance until the Supreme Court ruled for the second time this year that the state law that provides that opportunity is constitutional and must be enforced. Then their school boards, following state guidelines, chose school districts more than 20 miles away to provide that opportunity.

The anger in districts at the other end of the bus ride is understandable, too. Many of the parents in the Francis Howell and Mehlville districts moved there seeking better educations for the children. Unlike many of those who live in Normandy or Riverview Gardens today, they had the ability to make that happen.

The burden of decades, indeed, more than a century, of racially motivated public policy decisions is being cast on their shoulders alone. They, not parents and kids elsewhere in the white suburbs of St. Louis, are being asked to eat the sins of previous generations.

Are some of their fears race-based and unfounded? Yes, but that doesn’t negate the unfairness of it all.

This is, and has been for a long time, an entirely predictable and avoidable situation.

For several years now, as long as the Breitenfeld vs. Clayton case has been in the court system, educators have begged lawmakers to find some reasonable compromise. Lawmakers could have given students the opportunity to go to any school they wanted, by providing transportation funding. They could have developed a set of reasonable transfer policies, spreading the pain (and opportunity) to districts across the region. They could have been truly bold and broken down the boundaries of the too many school districts in St. Louis. They could have done many things.

They did nothing.

So here we are. We can allow anger and divisiveness to tear us down, or we can grab the greatest opportunity for change St. Louis has ever known.

For too long the region has failed to acknowledge that public schools in the city’s poorest pockets are the entire region’s responsibility.

Whether unwitting or not, the decision by Normandy and Riverview Gardens to tie their students’ futures to white, middle-class suburban school districts has a certain poetic justice to it.

PLANT SEEDS OF CHANGE

Now the St. Louis region must have the conversation it has been avoiding.

It’s time for everybody, public school advocates, reformers, Democrats and Republicans, white and black and brown, to put their heads together with a common goal: Improve the opportunity for children who right now have little of it. It’s all of our problem now. This year it’s Mehlville and Francis Howell. Next year it might be Clayton and Rockwood.

Here’s a couple of suggestions to get the discussion going:

  • What if school reform advocate, philanthropist and political donor extraordinaire Rex Sinquefield took some of the money he’s been giving to politicians and gave it to the kids, instead? The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has advised school districts that they only have to provide transportation to one accredited school district. But what about those parents who prefer Hazelwood or Ladue or Ferguson-Florissant? You want to create some good will? You want to enable school choice? Buy some buses.
  • What if suburban districts start working now on a plan for the 2014-15 school year, a plan for which no transportation would be needed? Take the tuition money from the unaccredited school district and use it to operate a charter in Normandy or Riverview Gardens, using your teachers, your curriculum, your administration. Keep the kids close to home.
  • How about every single lawmaker who said nothing when Normandy absorbed kids from Wellston, another mostly black school district, and is now complaining about white districts taking in new kids, admitting that yes, this is about race after all.

There have been some voices of reason in recent days, students, parents and teachers, who have chosen to see this real-life, real-time, bold social experiment facing city and suburban schools for what it is: an opportunity. Let’s follow their lead.

Forget the boundaries. Forget the donors. Forget race and forget politics.

Focus on the kids.

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