Much has been said about the political situation in Ferguson (MO), but a huge problem lies in the schools. GOP legislators have cut trillions of dollars from budgets through massive tax cuts for wealthy people and corporations while spending more trillions on George W. Bush’s manufactured wars. Transferring federal fiscal obligations to states left them unable to fund their responsibilities. Problems in badly underfunded schools were exacerbated by punitive measures for artificial evaluation. Ferguson is a prime example of the GOP approach toward educating young people in the nation.
A remembrance of Michael Brown, the slain teenager, highlights our country’s low regard for educating its youth. Despite great disadvantages, Brown earned his diploma nine days before he was killed. He was scheduled to being schooling at a vocational school specializing in air conditioning and heating just a short time after he was murdered.
Brown’s graduation photograph was taken almost four months before he graduated because Normandy High School owned only two graduation gowns for the entire class. Two students would wear the gowns at one time, sit before the camera for their graduation portraits, and then pass the gowns on to the next two students. Needing more credits, Brown didn’t graduate with his class and went to summer school to earn his diploma.
Brown’s school district was formed by combining Normandy and Wellston districts. The poverty rate for families at Normandy was 92 percent; at Wellston, it was 98 percent. Every student at Wellston was black. Wellston, one-tenth the size of the almost 5,000-student Normandy, had been unaccredited for seven years; Normandy was on provisional accreditation for 18 years.
The state education board voted to merge these two districts in 2010, the first time that it changed school districts in 35 years. White flight in the districts had crashed property values and destroyed tax revenues. Better-off residents in the districts sent their children to private schools. To support the school, residents kept voting to raise their own property taxes, resulting in the highest rates in the state, but district revenues kept decreasing.
In 2012, the state board rated Normandy as a failed district, removed its accreditation, and put it under direct state control. Although the purpose was to redesign the district, the state Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that students in a failed district could go to other districts. Hundreds of Normandy students transferred to other districts, some of them majority white.
In Francis Howell (a 90-percent white) district, parents rebelled at the thought of having black students in their schools. During a school board meeting there, one mother said, “I deserve to not have to worry about my children getting stabbed, or taking a drug, or getting robbed.” Another parent added, “We don’t want this here in Francis Howell.”
Their fears did not come to fruition, and Francis Howell found that the 400 students who transferred into their district worked well with the other students. Normandy, however, suffered more financial problems because it had to pay for transportation and tuition to the districts where students transferred. Those who stayed at Normandy held pep rallies and welcome-back-to-school gatherings; students tutored each other to improve the school’s academic ranking. They said that there was a sense of optimism despite the deprivation of resources.
Funding for transfer students cost the district more than educating students within the district because other districts spent far more on students than Normandy could afford. The state board of education took over the district’s finances and gave Normandy “accreditation as a state oversight district.” Nothing had changed for the district to obtain accreditation, but students were no longer able to transfer to other districts. The revised minutes from June read:
“The Missouri State Board of Education, pursuant to its statutory authority to waive its rules, including those regulating accreditation, has accredited the Normandy Schools Collaborative and thus its schools. Because of that accreditation, the Plaintiffs are not entitled to relief….”
Some members of the Missouri Board of Education had opposed the transfers with the argument that parents moved into the Normandy district last summer just to have their pick of high-performing school districts. No data supported this fear. After former Superintendent Stanton Lawrence was replaced by a white superintendent in the midst of this process, he wrote this description of this school reform of punitive disparity in “How Missouri Killed the Normandy School District.”
When students were told that they had to return to Normandy, Francis Howell, among other districts, was pleased and issued this statement:
“FHSD has consistently held the beliefs that transferring students from an unaccredited school district is not the solution to improving struggling schools, and that the funds spent on tuition and transportation for transfer students can be more effectively spent on educating the whole Normandy student population.”
Normandy no longer had any legal rights because it wasn’t a district. According to the state board of education, it was a special collaborative and “not in any district in this state.” The Normandy school district was now run by the president of the state board of education, Peter F. Herschend, of Branson (MO). With no background in education, he owns Herschend Family Entertainment which runs Silver Dollar City and other amusement parks. He is also one of the biggest contributors to the Republican Party in the state. The person in charge of Michael Brown’s school district, an urban, minority district so poor that students have only two graduation gowns to share, was a white Republican millionaire who lives over 200 miles away.
Late this afternoon, a St. Louis County Circuit Court ruled that students can again transfer from Normandy to other schools. The children of four families can enroll immediately, leaving the door open for another 500 students to return. The ruling invalidates decisions made by the Missouri Board of Education in June intended to get the Normandy Schools Collaborative out from under the school transfer law. Judge Michael Burton wrote:
“It is in the public interest for the plaintiffs to prevail. Every child in this community has a right to a decent education.”
No one knows what will happen now. There may be appeals, or students may be able to transfer to other schools. No matter what, this is the state of education in one state—and may be better than in other states.
Sixty years after the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education was intended to stop school segregation, schools are more segregated than ever—and segregated economically as well as racially. A new report from the Economic Policy Institute shows the isolation of black youth.
Court orders to integrate have mostly been lifted, many of them during George W. Bush’s terms, leaving schools to re-segregate. For example, Tuscaloosa (AL) had a thriving, demographically mixed high school until the integration mandate was lifted. White parents lobbied for districts to separate white and black students.
In a classic case of haves and have-nots, black neighborhoods have fewer primary care physicians and fewer grocery stores, and children growing up are more likely to be exposed to lead paint and to have asthma. Parents work less-flexible jobs with less time to foster learning by taking their children to zoos, libraries, and museums. Before kindergarten, minority kids are behind, and few of them ever catch up. Teachers in schools with the neediest students are usually the least qualified.
Young people in poor schools lack the resources that booster clubs and PTA funding in advantaged schools provide, and every year lack of funding requires parents to fund more and more things that taxes used to provide. Yet the poverty of many minorities demand greater resources than middle-class white students need in order to achieve success.
We are a country of elitist education, and Ferguson, Missouri, is an example of what happens because of this inequality.
[Note: The Daily KOS story drew many comments about whether people had to pay for graduation gowns. The gowns are a symbol of poverty that runs far deeper.]