For the past few days, I've been looking at the question of why decades of attempts to desegregate American schools did not lead to true desegregation and why these efforts, instead, undermined the educational quality of schools. I've been presenting the histories of school districts that have been seen as "success stories," beginning with Little Rock, and then going on to Charlotte and Milwaukee. Today's case is St. Louis, Missouri.
St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis was one of the few metropolitan areas where the effort to desegregate schools involved both the cities and the suburbs. It is an important case to consider because it is, along with Charlotte, one of the few that have been regularly singled out as one of the “success stories” of desegregation history. It began in the early 1970s, when a group of black students were reassigned from their neighborhood schools to less desirable locations on the grounds that their schools were becoming over crowded. The families of these students began a grassroots movement and initiated a lawsuit.[i]
On December 24, 1975, the case came before Federal District Court Judge James Meredith, who found that St. Louis schools were segregated by race. Judge Meredith issued a consent judgment and decree, directing the school district to take action aimed at desegregation. Sensitive to the fact that St. Louis was already losing white citizens to the suburbs, the judge did not order the reassignment of students or busing. Instead, the schools were to try to integrate their faculties by setting minimums for increases in minority teachers, and to use magnet schools to integrate student bodies.
Judge Meredith’s decision was only an interim measure, because the case against the St. Louis School Board was still set to go to trial. The plaintiffs enjoyed the support of the federal government, after the Justice Department intervened on their behalf in 1977. At the trial in 1979, though, Judge Meredith found in favor of the school board. He concluded that the board had tried to create legally integrated schools by allowing all students to attend neighborhood institutions, and that segregation had occurred as a consequence of demographic shifts in housing.
Dissatisfied, the plaintiffs appealed. In March 1980, the Eighth Circuit Court reversed the 1979 ruling. Even though the court agreed that student assignments to schools had been racially neutral since the 1950s, the court found that the school board had failed to correct the results of legally segregated schooling incurred during the first half of the twentieth century. The school board, according to the court, had an obligation to create a school system without racially identifiable schools.
The case went back to Judge Meredith, who now approved an $18 million plan for desegregation within the district of St. Louis. A system without racially identifiable schools would be difficult to create solely within St. Louis, though, because only 23 percent of the district’s students were white, and they were mainly concentrated in a single section. Court-appointed desegregation expert Gary Orfield wrote a report, pointing out that the suburbs would have to be involved in any attempt at meaningful desegregation.
In the early 1980s, then, the court began moving toward an inter-district remedy. A St. Louis - St. Louis County inter-district transfer plan took effect in 1983, with sixteen St. Louis County districts participating. The suburban districts had agreed to become part of this metropolitan solution out of fear that a federal judge would create a single district, encompassing the entire region. The transporting of students from city to suburb lasted for the rest of the century.
This finally came to an end in 1999, when the plaintiffs to the lawsuit, the state of Missouri, the Justice Department, the sixteen districts, and the St. Louis Board of Education finally came to an agreement to end the case. At that time, about 12,000 city students were attending schools in the county, and about 1,400 suburban students were traveling each day to the city. With the end of the case, inter-district transfers were to continue under a voluntary desegregation plan run by the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation (VICC), which allowed participating black students to move out of schools in the city to suburban schools.[ii]
Many have celebrated St. Louis and its suburbs as a great success in school desegregation. Speaking before the House of Representatives in 1999, Representative William Clay announced:
I want to call the attention of my colleagues to the remarkable story of desegregation in St. Louis. St. Louis illustrates the gains that can be made for children even in these times. In St. Louis, a 1983 settlement of a desegregation case brought by the NAACP resulted in the largest voluntary metropolitan school desegregation program in the nation, with 13,000 black students from St. Louis attending school in 16 suburban districts. The program was very successful in increasing the graduation and college‑going rates of participating youngsters as was a magnet program in city schools.[iii]
An examination of the results of over thirty years of busing raises questions about the basis for this celebration. Economist Joy Kiviat, in 2000, observed that eight out of ten students in the city of St. Louis were black. Most were attending schools that contained virtually no whites. Per pupil spending came to $7,564 ($10,450 in 2014 dollars), but the dropout rate was 62% and students scored at the bottom on standardized tests. One-third of the public school teachers in St. Louis chose to send their own children to private schools, and private school attendance was above that of the national average, especially among relatively high income families.[iv]
Data from the Missouri Department of Secondary and Elementary Education supports Kiviat’s bleak view of St. Louis schools. According to this information, 82.3% of the students in St. Louis City public schools were black in 2013. Whites, who had been a little under 18% in 2000, had gone down to just under 12% of the student population in 2013. On the 2013 Missouri Assessment Program tests, 61.6% of Missouri white seventh graders and 45.5% of St. Louis City white seventh graders were proficient or advanced in English language arts, compared to 32.7% of Missouri black seventh graders and just 22.0% of black seventh graders in St. Louis City.
In mathematics, 64.6% of white seventh graders statewide and 32.1% of white students in St. Louis were proficient or higher, but only 33.7% of black seventh graders throughout the state and 21.9% of black seventh graders in St. Louis City were at this level.[v] The small number of white students in the city showed poorer outcomes than whites elsewhere in the state, and the black students in this minority concentration district showed worse results than both black and white students throughout Missouri.
The suburban districts that have received students from St. Louis varied in their racial compositions. The students of Webster Groves, adjoining St. Louis, were between 12 and 22% black in 1982.[vi] By 2013, Webster Groves was still racially identifiable as a majority white district, with whites constituting 74% of students and blacks 19% of the student population. Black students in Webster Groves did better than their St. Louis counter parts, since 43.2% of black seventh graders were proficient or advanced in English language arts in 2013and 56.3% of were proficient or better in mathematics.
Nevertheless, there was still a huge racial achievement gap in the comparatively high-performing suburban district of Webster Groves, since 81.2% of same-grade whites were at least proficient in English language arts and 83.2% were at this level in mathematics. The Rockwood district, farthest from St. Louis, with a black student population under 4% in 1982, had become 12% black and 84% white by 2004 and 10% black, 80% white, and 6% Asian by 2013. In this still majority white district, the race gap was also great.
Only 34.6% of its black seventh graders in the Rockwood district were at least proficient in English language arts in 2013, compared to 76.6% of whites and 89.7% of Asians. In mathematics, only 30.0% of black seventh graders were at least proficient, while 79.6% of whites and 95.3% of Asians were proficient or better, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The best that one can say about the supposed St. Louis success story was that it was not a complete disaster. Since the whites in the suburbs were never forced to send their own children into the inner city, and busing from the city to the suburbs never inundated the latter, white families did not move en masse to private schools or leave the metropolitan area. The minority of black students who did go to school away from their own neighborhoods may have benefited from advantageous socioeconomic settings, although the cursory test results just cited suggest that this requires more study.
Desegregation in St. Louis can be judged a success only in comparison to the utter fiascos of many other locations, though. The years of inter-district busing and billions of dollars in transportation and administrative costs did not accomplish any of the stated goals of the program, though. These years did not do away with racially identifiable schools or racially identifiable school districts. Neither did this Herculean effort eliminate the enormous racial achievement gap, in either the city or the suburbs.
[i] Where not otherwise noted, much of the discussion of the St. Louis case is drawn from Amy Stuart Wells and Robert L. Crain, Stepping Over the Color Line: African American Students in White Suburban Schools (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997). Wells and Crain provide an excellent case study of St. Louis, although their perspective and conclusions differ from those presented above While I admire their work, I would take issue with their ad hominem characterizations of the white suburbanites who disagreed with inter-district busing as simply historically uninformed “resistors,” contrasted with the “visionaries” who supported the program.
[iii] Hon. William Clay in the House of Representatives, July 16, 1999.
[v] Missouri Assessment Program (MAP), 2010-2013. St Louis City Disaggregate Data by Race/Ethnicity, accessed October 28, 2013, http://dese.mo.gov/schooldata/four/115115/mapdnone.html.
[vi] Wells and Crain, Stepping Over the Color Line, see the map on p. 254.