Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Is Missouri’s School Transfer Law a Fix to Racial and Socioeconomic Isolation?, By Aaron Taylor

The issue of race in public education has long been salient in Missouri.  St. Louis, along with its cross-state counterpart, Kansas City, was an epicenter of the battle for desegregated schools.  Through much of Missouri’s history, great pains were taken to ensure that schools were racially isolated.  The state constitution mandated the racial segregation of schoolchildren until 1976, more than 20 years after the provision was rendered void by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education.

Post-Brown desegregation efforts were reluctant, resistant, and protracted.  But, ultimately, they were deemed successful.  In 1999, St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) reached a settlement, which ended federal court supervision of its desegregation efforts.  But while schools in St. Louis are legally desegregated, they are not integrated in any practical sense.  Almost 60 years after Brown ended segregation by law, students in St. Louis attend schools that are segregated in fact.  And with 89% of St. Louis public school students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, socioeconomic isolation pervades as well.

Racial and socioeconomic isolation lead to racially and socioeconomically disparate educational outcomes.  As I explained in a previous writing:

Disparities among St. Louis area school districts have an undeniable racial character.  Of the seven area districts with black student enrollments above 50%, all have free or reduced lunch rates of at least 60 percent, compared to only two of the 15 majority white districts.  All of the majority black districts have graduation rates below the state average, compared to only one of the majority white districts.  In five of the seven majority black districts, a lower proportion of graduates enter four-year colleges than the state average, compared to only four of the fifteen majority white districts.  Moreover, in four of the majority black districts, the proportion of graduates immediately undertaking any post-secondary education is lower than the state average, compared to only one of the majority white districts.

Unfortunately, the suburban migration, or white-flight, that has characterized the post-WWII era, rendered integrated schools all but impossible in St. Louis and other cities.  Recognizing this reality, many people advocated for desegregation plans that encompassed entire metropolitan areas, rather than individual cities only.  The idea was that because of their broader scopes, metropolitan plans would minimize the effects of segregative housing patterns on school demographics and also make “flight” more difficult.  However, in 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court made it difficult for federal courts to impose such plans.

In Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717, 745 (1974), the Court held that for suburban districts to be brought into a desegregation plan, it must be shown that those districts operated segregated schools or were significantly affected by school segregation in other districts.  This decision, while plausible on its face, failed to account for the effects of housing policies and practices that fostered suburban migration, segregated neighborhoods and, as a result, segregated schools.  The actions of individual school boards are but a small factor in the calculus of racial isolation.  But Milliken ensured that federal judges overseeing school desegregation would be severely hamstrung in their efforts to bring about actual integration.  The demographics of SLPS and many other districts across the country are legacies of Milliken.

But could Missouri’s school transfer law, Mo. Rev. Stat. §167.131 (2012), pave the way for a metropolitan solution to segregated schools in the St. Louis area?  In Turner v. School District of Clayton, 318 S.W.3d 660, 664 (Mo. banc 2010), and its subsequent iteration, Breitenfeld v. School District of Clayton, the Missouri Supreme Court interpreted the law as allowing students in unaccredited school districts to transfer to area schools in accredited districts.  Moreover, according to the court, transfer students are free to choose their new schools, the new schools must accept them, and the unaccredited districts must pay the costs of educating the students at their new schools.  This interpretation means that Missouri has one of the most potent and empowering student transfer laws in the country. 

The implications of the law and the court’s interpretation of it could be vast.  Currently, two virtually all-black St. Louis area school districts and the overwhelmingly black and Hispanic Kansas City school district are unaccredited.  In addition, there are as many as eleven other districts, including SLPS, the state’s largest, that are in real danger of losing accreditation in the near future.  In fact, it was the previously unaccredited status of SLPS that spawned the Turner litigation and much of the doom and gloom rhetoric surrounding the transfer law.  The district gained provisional accreditation in 2012.

While Kansas City transfers are currently on hold pending a lawsuit that the school districts are most certain to lose, the process has begun among the two St. Louis area districts.  The reactions have ranged from unfortunate to encouraging.  Early in the process, the Frances Howell school district, which received 475 transfer students, the most of any district, held a public meeting that was particularly inflammatory, with parents expressing concerns about how transfer students will introduce a subversive, even violent presence. 

The data shows that the expressed concerns are exaggerated.  Normandy indeed reported 41 violent incidents involving students in 2012, compared to only five in the much larger Frances Howell district; however, Frances Howell reported 96 drug incidents compared to eleven at Normandy, and 17 incidents involving weapons compared to six at Normandy.  With half the year almost completed, I have seen no reports of violence of any kind by transfer students.

But the meeting highlighted the issues of race and class bubbling just beneath the surface.  Frances Howell, an overwhelmingly white and middle class exurb district, received students from the virtually all-black and poor Normandy school district.  And the fears expressed by many Frances Howell parents are reflective of the racial discord that we see in larger society.

Fortunately, the vocal protests are not the only voices being heard.  Administrators and teachers from Frances Howell and other receiving districts have expressed a willingness to embrace the transfer students and integrate them into their schools.  Parents and students have also welcomed the transfers.  They recognize the importance of following the law; but more importantly, they recognize that these are children who deserve to be treated with dignity and provided the best education possible.  To paraphrase one of the rather insightful parents at the Frances Howell meeting, not every kid who attends a failing school is a failing student.

Transfer students will contribute both racial and socioeconomic diversity to their new schools.  They will integrate these schools in ways that Milliken rendered unattainable.  And while the arrival of the transfer students is viewed by some with dread, the benefits of racial and socioeconomic diversity are well supported by the research literature.  Diverse learning environments foster rich learning experiences and better prepare students for interactions in an increasingly diverse society.

But with all of this said, the transfer law is not a fix to the segregation and inequity seen in Missouri public schools.  For starters, the economic costs on the unaccredited districts appear unsustainable.  Fixing these problems would require a holistic solution that addresses income inequity, housing policy, and school finance—a solution that sadly seems impossible in the current polarized political environment. 

The transfer law, however, may incentivize all districts to have a stake in each other’s health.  If so, a political consensus could form around a legislative response that takes a less punitive, metropolitan approach to fixing schools.  A more strategic expansion of student transfer allowances could be a relatively easy response.  A better targeted school funding scheme would be a much more difficult, but highly useful response.  Whatever the response, the ultimate goal should be to blur the lines of isolation and division by incentivizing inter-district cooperation.



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