Headlines screamed the basics: A 9-year-old St. Louis boy will be barred from remaining at the school he loves, just because he is black.
The stories fed outrage across the nation and around the world and fueled an online petition that now has more than 90,000 signatures, imploring Missouri education officials to change the rules and make things right.
But behind the headlines and the anger lie more than 40 years of legal arguments that began when the educational landscape was far different from what it is now. Just as Edmund Lee’s mother became angry and pressed for change, the rules that may now thwart her son resulted because another mother was furious about where her son was told he had to go to school. In both cases, their concern for one boy grew into a movement.
“It's really nice to see that we have that support,” La’Shieka White said of the petition signers and others who have rallied to Edmund’s cause. “At the end of the day, all I was trying to do was keep my son at his school because he said he wanted to stay there.”
Because her family is moving from the city to the Pattonville school district, Edmund will no longer be eligible to attend the Gateway Science Academy, a city charter school. Despite the frustration expressed by people on all sides of the controversy, the situation is a classic case of unintended consequences.
Shifting demographics, changing schools
When Minnie Liddell was told back in 1972 that her son Craton was going to be shunted to yet another school in the city of St. Louis, she had had enough. The lawsuit she filed worked its way through the federal courts for years and prompted first intradistrict busing within the city, then the longstanding voluntary interdistrict school busing program with St. Louis County that remains active today.
Unlike the student transfers from the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts that began in 2013 because of a state law and were based on low student achievement, the busing prompted by the Liddell case was about one topic, race, and had one remedy: providing opportunities for African-American students to enroll in predominantly white school districts.
The basics of the plan were simple.
Black students in the city would be allowed to transfer to districts in St. Louis County. White students in the county would be allowed to transfer to city schools, and a system of magnet schools designed to attract those students would be established.
White students in the city and black students in the county were not included in the ability to transfer.
The plan upset the traditional arrangement that had students attending schools in their neighborhood. And it ushered in changes in enrollment patterns that are still evolving.
In 1998, Missouri enacted a law allowing charter schools to open in St. Louis and Kansas City, creating another type of public school that operated outside the tradition district system. Today, about 10,500 students attend about three dozen charter school locations in the city. Nearly three-quarters of that enrollment is black.
One year after the charter law was passed, a final settlement in the long-running desegregation case was approved by U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh Sr. It was scheduled to last for 10 years, and has had two five-year extensions beyond its original life.
'Hit me as a shock'
That settlement and the legal rulings that led up to it blocked Edmund Lee’s wish to remain enrolled at Gateway Science Academy. Educators say changes in that settlement can’t be made by lawmakers, by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education or by the school itself.
When White found out that moving to Pattonville would disqualify her son from continuing at Gateway Science Academy, it “really hit me as a shock,” she said – particularly when she learned the reason behind the ban.
“Honestly,” she said in an interview, “I was under the impression that if you didn't live in the city, you couldn't go to the school period. I'm completely fine with that. But I don't think it's fair that kids can transfer in, but with one stipulation, you can't be African-American. I don't agree with that.
“I feel like it was probably really good intentions, but right now, that's just not what our society is looking like. It has changed dramatically since that came into place.”
She said the academy that her son has attended since kindergarten is 80 percent white, “so he is bringing diversity to his school.”
White said her family’s move from the city to the county has nothing to do with education, just the need for more room for a growing family. She plans to close on the new home in a few weeks.
The idea for the online petition came after a discussion with the school’s principal, White said. He was going to contact state officials to see what could be done to keep Edmund enrolled, so she thought she would put some pressure on DESE as well.
Calling the support from as far away as the Netherlands, Australia and Uganda “heartening,” White added with a laugh:
“I would never have imagined that almost two weeks later, we're almost at 100,000 signatures.”
She said Edmund’s success at the academy, where he has a 3.8 grade point average, has turned him into an inquisitive child – a math-minded boy who keeps track of how many online supporters he has.
“He is such a humble kid,” White said. “His teacher told me that one of the first things she thought was that he was going to come in and be all like, I'm cool. He comes in like nothing's happened. But he does think it's pretty cool. He'll ask me every day, 'Mom, how many signatures do we have on our petition?' He's excited about that.”
But, she added, the family realizes that its drive to keep Edmund where he is might not succeed.
“It's going to be OK," she said, "whether he can continue to go or if he has to go to his new school. We still haven't come up with a game plan as to what is the next step.
“My biggest thing was I just wanted the principal to have support, saying look, I have parents from this school supporting this young man. Maybe we should look at it or see what we can do for him.”
At this point, it’s uncertain what can be done, or who could do it.
When White began her online petition, addressed to officials at DESE, the department quickly responded that it wasn’t the villain and has no authority to change things. “This unfortunate situation,” it said in a news release, “is not due to state law or state regulations.”
Noting that the court-ordered desegregation program was designed to “balance the racial makeup of the city and county schools,” DESE added one more bold-faced statement just to make sure everyone understood it was blameless in Edmund’s situation.
“There are no state laws or DESE regulations specifically preventing African American students from transferring schools.”
That disclaimer didn’t necessarily appease Edmund’s supporters.
Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, released a statement saying:
“It is unacceptable that Edmund is denied the right to attend a public school because of the color of his skin. This case provides more evidence that St. Louis has not turned the page on its troubling history of racial inequality in our children’s education.”
The Missouri Charter Public School Association also battled perceptions that the situation was an outgrowth of what one publication wrongly called “the racist history of charter schools.” It noted that charter schools in St. Louis have a racial makeup basically the same as that of the city public schools.
Pointing out that Gateway Science Academy would like Edmund to stay, the executive director of the charter school association, Doug Thaman, concluded his statement by saying:
“This issue has absolutely nothing to do with charter public schools, state laws or the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and everything to do with court-ordered desegregation.”
The head of the group that oversees the deseg program, David Glaser, also called Edmund’s case an “unfortunate situation” created by the court rules.
Glaser, CEO of the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp. (VICC), said white parents who have to live in the city because of their jobs, like police officers or firefighters, have complained about their children’s inability to transfer to county schools as black children can.
But, he added, “I’m not aware of any time when the reverse situation has come up, when a child who is African-American is living in the county and wants to attend a school in the city.”
What happens now?
As the controversy surrounding Edmund’s plight persists, officials at Gateway Science Academy say they are searching for a solution.
“We’re so pleased that he wants to stay here,” said Janet Moak, assistant principal at the school. “We take that as speaking to the quality that we have offered here at the charter school. We really want to support him in those efforts, but at this point, nothing has been finalized.”
Moak wouldn’t talk about what options are being considered. State law says flatly that “a charter school may not charge tuition,” so that avenue is out. Edmund could remain without the state reimbursing the school for his attendance, but Moak wouldn’t say whether that is a viable choice.
She did say that there is no deadline for a decision to be made, only that the school hopes to resolve it soon.
In the long range, how might the broader situation be changed to avoid future situations like Edmund’s? Glaser at VICC admits he doesn’t have a definitive answer. He notes that the current program won’t be allowed to continue forever, but he isn’t sure what will replace it, or who will draw up the rules.
“Would it be something that all the districts in the St. Louis metropolitan area could voluntarily agree to, with the approval of local boards of education?” he asked. “Would it take a federal court order? A legislative decision? I’m really not sure.”
But, he noted, as schools move away from the traditional enrollment pattern of attending class where you live, and with a general orientation toward greater cooperation among St. Louis area government agencies, school districts could easily be included in whatever evolves.
“There are already some efforts that are out there anyway,” Glaser said. “They’re not necessarily school-district related, but in terms of how can we think as a region and be better as a region and support one another and make sure that every child, no matter where they live, has an opportunity to get a high-quality education.”
Could La’Sheika White, like Minnie Liddell more than 40 years ago, be the spark for such a change? She said it’s not such a far-fetched idea.
“It’s possible,” White said. “I’m really very outspoken. I’m for equality, period, so you never know.”
Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger