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Education trends could jeopardize gains won by Liddell case, speakers say

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 23, 2012 - More than 40 years after legal action began to desegregate St. Louis area schools, new trends in education, here and nationally, could result in classes where black and white students are less likely to learn together.

That was one conclusion at Washington University Thursday from speakers at a symposium looking back at changes brought by a lawsuit against school segregation by Minnie Liddell and forward to how classrooms may look in upcoming years.

Several panelists focused in particular on the recent push for choice in education and the rise in popularity of charter schools.

Wendy Parker, a law professor at Wake Forest University, noted that charter schools are typically more segregated by race and by class than traditional public schools. She praised the voluntary desegregation plan in the St. Louis area schools, saying it is a nationally recognized model, and said that though integration nationwide has improved, the ideal situation has not been reached.

“I do think it’s achievable,” Parker added, “but I don’t think choice is going to get us there.”

Kimberly Jade Norwood, a law professor at Washington U. who helped put together the symposium, noted that the 1999 settlement that ended court supervision of the St. Louis area plan was set to run for 10 years. It was extended by five years in 2009, but another five-year extension, now being discussed, may run into trouble because of the current legal action in the so-called Turner case.

That lawsuit is over how to implement a Missouri law that allows students who live in unaccredited school districts — currently St. Louis, Riverview Gardens and Kansas City — to transfer to nearby accredited schools. Their home district must pay for tuition and transportation, and the receiving districts have no discretion over how many students they have to take.

While such a mandate may look good for parents living in the unaccredited districts, Norwood said, it could bankrupt the city school system and cause massive disruptions for the county districts.

She also noted that the law, if upheld, could result in greater segregation in the suburban schools, with white students moving from the city to predominantly white schools in the county.

Reviewing the history of the Liddell case, several people who were involved in the lawsuit over the years noted that it really sprang from housing discrimination that  confined African-Americans to living in certain areas of St. Louis.

That situation, said John Wright, a longtime educator in the city and county, led to the overcrowded, segregated schools that led Liddell to file her suit in the first place.

“No matter how large the population was,” he said, “you could not move out of your neighborhood.”

A landmark legal case out of St. Louis helped remedy that problem by striking down restrictive housing covenants, but it did not solve problems of segregation in areas ranging from jobs to playgrounds, Wright said, and city officials were afraid to take a stand.

Attorney Anne-Marie Clarke, who was active on the plaintiffs’ side of the case, stressed how the group led by Liddell was mismatched against larger forces on the other side. It had to make the point, she said, that historical forces had shaped the landscape that black families found themselves in.

“What’s important to understand,” she said, “is that the case was about housing patterns that existed in the city of St. Louis that required blacks who were living in certain areas of the city to only be able to go to certain districts of the school system. The board’s policy perpetuated segregation. The school boundaries served no valid educational goals.”

Through a series of four federal judges — James Meredith, William Hungate, George Gunn and Stephen Limbaugh Sr., who handled the case before and after Gunn — busing agreements eventually came together. First they involved intradistrict busing in St. Louis, then they broadened to include interdistrict busing that took in the 23 school districts in St. Louis County.

The settlement had three main components: the transfer of black students to county schools, creation of magnet schools to attract white students from St. Louis County to the city, and an infusion of funds to improve schools for black students left behind in the city.

The state of Missouri fought the plans every step of the way, panelists noted, singling out in particular former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who later became governor, senator and U.S. attorney general.

Bruce La Pierre, a Washington U. law professor who served as special master in the case, noted that it went to the federal appeals court 20 times and the U.S. Supreme Court five times, costing the state of Missouri more than $1 billion. That mounting financial bill, he said, was the lever that finally got the state into the mood to negotiate and lawyers for all sides to see their clients’ interests in a broader frame of reference.

“The state of Missouri dragged its heels,” La Pierre said of progress toward a settlement. “The state hadn’t agreed. It was rammed down its throat, but it was bound by the settlement.

“These provisions were long and drawn out in their implementation, and many of the children for whom the benefits were intended never received those benefits.”

Through all the legal talk, Minnie Liddell, whose photo was projected on a screen behind the panels, was never far from Thursday’s discussion. Three of her four surviving children were presented with a vase commemorating their family’s courage in the case.

Her youngest son, Michael, who benefited from the case by attending magnet schools, noted how strong the emphasis on education was in his home, and how his mother’s yearning for good schools for every child was equally robust.

“Her passion for this never went away until the day she died,” he said. “She never hesitated to give us a lesson in history, a lesson in why she did this.

“It wasn’t just about our family. It was about kids who hadn’t even been born yet.”

Attorney Bill Douthit, who recalled how Minnie Liddell insisted on getting nightly updates on the case, also repeated the words she said to lawmakers at the end of a marathon hearing on the case at Roosevelt High School back in October 1997.

Noting that she had gotten out of a sickbed to listen to what people had to say about the case that was then 25 years old, she was angry that educators and lawmakers were still trying to deny responsibility for the segregation that had led to black children getting an inferior education.

“Everyone wants to know whether integration works,” she said, her words slurred from the effects of a stroke. “Well, I can tell you what don't work. Segregated education didn't work. It didn't work for me, and it didn't work for a lot of black people.

“You owe it to the children of St. Louis to provide them some choices and a quality education. And if you don't see that happens, all of us are going to pay for it. Each and every one of us is going to pay for it.”

Judge Limbaugh recalled another appearance by Liddell, at a hearing on the settlement agreement that ended court supervision of the case in 1999. After getting the views of other parties, Limbaugh said, he watched her take the stand, moving slowly. But, he added, she still had a twinkle in her eye.

He asked her if he should approve the settlement, and she acknowledged that though not everything she wanted had been achieved, it should win approval. He asked why.

“There have been four judges who have heard this case,” Limbaugh quoted her as saying. “I’ve outlived three of them. I don’t want to have to outlive the fourth.”

Then, he said, she looked at him and asked:

“Do you have a doctor who recommends medicine for you?"

He said he did.

“She said, ‘Take it,'” Limbaugh recounted with a laugh.

“That was some woman.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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