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Commentary: Schools Remain Separate And Unequal

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A new study finds that nearly one-third of public school students would leave the St. Louis district if they could take advantage of a contested Mo. law that lets them transfer to better-performing districts.

What progress can this country point to since the 1954 decision in Brown v Board of Education? It gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement, and that, ironically, has had greater success in parts of society such as housing integration and voting rights than it has in education. Today we still have separate and unequal schools -- not by legal mandate but by other de facto conditions in our neighborhoods. The trials and tribulations in the Normandy schools this past year have helped illuminate the stark contrasts in our public education system.

Now all those involved need to rethink their roles in living up to the promise of the Brown ruling to allow every child access the highest quality education possible.

As of today, the future of the school system serving the children living in the current boundaries of the Normandy School District is still in question even though the next school year starts in about two months.

How can this be? We have a “transfer fix” passed by the state Legislature. The governor has said he will veto it. While that could have some bearing on Normandy’s future, it would not fix the financial bleeding for struggling, unaccredited schools.

But we also have a lawsuit filed by the current Normandy School District against the State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and all the districts that received Normandy students in the transfer program. And DESE ruled that -- as of June 30 -- the current Normandy School District will lapse and will be replaced by a new Normandy Schools Collaborative District. This new entity will have a new governing board yet to be determined and the State Board is requiring all contracts to be terminated and all employees to reapply for their jobs.

It is a mess and my fear is that yet one more time the children of this community will suffer. This chaos would not happen in Clayton or Ladue. We are still separate and unequal. 

If we truly care about the education of all of our children here are things we should implement right away:

  • Significantly increase state funding to provide the highest quality pre-K to all low-income children in the state. Missouri’s ranks near the bottom nationally in the amount of resources it sends to providers of pre-K for low-income children.
  • Increase state funding to school districts in which more than 50 percent of the student population receives free and reduced lunch. This would help provide resources to support their academic success. These resources must create intentionally integrated wrap-around services that are available and easily accessible by any child and its family.
  • Expand Medicaid in Missouri. Healthy children with healthy parents perform better academically. There is no plausible reason other than politics to not accept federal funds to make our citizens healthy. 
  • Create a robust and vibrant partnership in communities with unaccredited schools that includes DESE, the local school district, community leaders, students and parents. We must create an accountability structure for each party that has regular metrics to report on and the ability to work with each other on any challenges that occur.
  • Give preference in state funding for housing, social services, senior services, economic development and other programs to communities that have a comprehensive plan to regain full accreditation of their school district. 
  • Create accountability structures for school districts that engage local community members and require regular community feedback on status of schools in an open forum outside of regular school board meetings. 

After 60 years we should be celebrating the historic Brown v. Board decision as a landmark in ensuring equal access to a quality education. We cannot. If we are serious about making Brown a reality, we must have the courage to do so.

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