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Education

New Report Examines Deep Racial Inequities In St. Louis Region's Public Schools

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Ryan Delaney
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Students in a 2019 photo in the Maplewood Richmond Heights District, one of 28 districts Forward Through Ferguson examined in its new report.

The St. Louis region has long struggled with the gap between majority Black public school districts and those that are majority white, but getting at the root causes is complex.

That’s why the nonprofit Forward Through Ferguson took on education disparities in its new report, said Executive Director David Dwight IV.

“We’re here to demystify the policies and practices that hold back Black and brown St. Louisans while benefiting white ones, ” said Dwight during a Zoom call with almost 200 people Wednesday evening. “To grow transparency and buy-in so that residents can see into these often opaque, whether intentional or not, systems.”

The report, “Still Separate, Still Unequal: A Call to Level the Uneven Education Playing Field in St. Louis,” is the data counterpart to the nonprofit’s new website, which is meant to help advocates and individuals begin making more equitable changes to the city's education system. The data, highlighted on stillunequal.org, are sobering.

For starters, there is a roughly $2,000 difference in spending on individual students between majority Black and majority white school districts; teachers in Black districts make, on average, more than $6,000 less than their counterparts in white districts; property in Black neighborhoods is worth half that of white neighborhoods; and white households report a median income $30,000 higher than Black ones.

And the list goes on.

Some of those facts at face value may feel like they’re not directly related to disparities in education. But Karishma Furtado, lead author of the report and Forward Through Ferguson’s data and research catalyst, said that’s a misconception.

“We really believe, and wanted to tackle with this project, that the majority of what creates those gaps lies upstream of where we are focusing our current intervention and our current energy,” Furtado said.

It’s not that there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of effort by educators to fix these issues, she added, but for lasting change, policymakers must take a step back and evaluate the whole picture.

The report focused on a chain of four key factors: segregation, funding, property taxes and educational environment.

During Wednesday night’s presentation, property taxes provided the most jarring data.

Public schools receive the majority of their funding from property taxes. Communities often vote on how much they are willing to be taxed. Because property taxes in Black neighborhoods tend to yield less money due to lower value, that doesn’t generate the funding needed for students.

The result? Majority Black districts in St. Louis tend to vote to increase their own taxes at a higher rate than their white counterparts in an effort to overcome the shortfall. But even with higher taxes, the gap does not close.

These sort of treacherous cycles were created, and continue to be inflamed by, the historical segregation efforts that gripped the city in the 20th century.

Dwight and Furtado agree that the report is meant to be a starting point for undoing decades of discrimination. Their work calls for policy changes from inside classrooms to the Missouri Constitution, all of which they acknowledge will take time.

But the two, along with their colleagues, radiated an immense amount of hope for the city.

“I’ve been pitching to David that we should really make an example, or draw parallels to the moon landing, “ Furtado said, when asked if this kind of systemic change was possible. “We did something incredible that was inconceivable just a few years prior.”

Follow Becca on Twitter: @itsreallyflick

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