[I am reposting this because the original post earlier today seems to have disappeared.]
Sixty years after the landmark Brown decision, school segregation is on the rise. The nation marks the anniversary of the decision every ten years but neglects its promise to end racial segregation. One of the most egregious examples of malign neglect occurred recently in the Normandy school district in Missouri. That district had been a high-achieving all-white district in the 1950s. After years of white flight, the district became all-African-American. As its test scores fell, the state of Missouri put the district on provisional accreditation. Help was definitely not on the way. After 18 years of provisional accreditation, the state merged the struggling Normandy district with another struggling, all-black district that had been under state supervision for five years. After the merger, the new district was stripped of accreditation.
Dr. Stanton Lawrence, who wrote the post below, was appointed superintendent of the Normandy school district in 2008. At that time, it was the second lowest-performing district in the state of Missouri (98% African American students/94.5% poverty) and had been provisionally accredited for 15 years. Two years later, the State Board of Education merged Normandy with the only lower performing school district (100% African American students/98% poverty) in the state, Wellston School District and stripped Normandy of its accreditation two years later. Dr. Lawrence wrote me to say, “My understanding is that this has never happened anywhere else in the country. There was a much higher performing district adjoining Wellston, but there would have been an atomic explosion if the African American students had been sent to University City School District.” The new district, like the old one, will be nearly 100% African American.
Stanton Lawrence asks in this post, “Has the Brown v. Board of Education Decision Been Institutionally Annulled?” He describes the actions of the state of Missouri as “punitive disparity.” Did any civil rights organization sue the state of Missouri? No. Did the U.S. Department of Education intervene? No. Did Secretary of Education Arne Duncan use his bully pulpit to demand desegregation and support for the children in the Normandy School District? No. The children in this district were essentially written off by the state of Missouri, and no one cares. Where is the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, Democrats for Education Reform, StudentsFirst, and Students Matter? Why aren’t the billionaires saving these children?
Stanton Lawrence writes:
On May 17, 1954, the United State Supreme Court handed down its historic decision in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, lawsuit. This landmark ruling stipulated that “de jure” segregation, racial separation that is required by law, could no longer exist in public schools. Further, the high court ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”. The reluctance of many southern school districts to enforce this new law resulted in many school districts receiving federal desegregation court orders mandating that they desegregate their schools. In recent years, despite Brown v. Board, many of these school districts have once again become more segregated than they were prior to 1965.
Nearly fifty-eight and one-half years later, on September 18, 2012, the Missouri State Board of Education decided to reclassify the Normandy School District as unaccredited. On its face, there was nothing unusual about the decision. The school district had been provisionally accredited for nearly eighteen years, and the dismal academic performance of its students was largely to blame. One could certainly make a strong case that the time had arrived for the state board of education to take meaningful action and send a clear message that a change was imperative if Normandy students were indeed deserving of a high quality educational experience.
But what was kept strangely quiet during the two hours of deliberations preceding the Missouri State Board of Education’s vote was the fact that only two years earlier, this same Board decided to merge a failed school district into the Normandy School District. That fact was never mentioned even once, almost as though it had never happened. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had exercised oversight of the Wellston School District for five years. When the state determined that there was insufficient progress in Wellston, they decided to lapse the school district and merge it into the similarly struggling Normandy School District.
Again, the decision would have been considered unremarkable, however, with a couple of critical exceptions. Every student in the Wellston School District was African American, and ninety-eight percent of those students received free or reduced price lunch, the federal threshold for determining poverty. In fact, Wellston was the only school district in the state of Missouri that was 100% African-American. Ninety-eight percent of Normandy’s students were African-American, and ninety-four and one-half percent of those students were from impoverished families. In essence, both communities were experiencing concentrated poverty and racial segregation. Was this decision made to effectively segregate the students in both school districts?
Not surprisingly, a trend line of longitudinal academic data of all school districts in the state of Missouri, when juxtaposed on a trend line reflecting the percentage of African American students from impoverished families in each school district, offers some distressing reflections. There is a near perfect match which reflects that the school districts with the highest percentage of impoverished African American students were performing least well on the state assessment. One can easily make a relatively compelling argument that the state could have easily projected that the Normandy-Wellston merger would, in essence, be disastrous from the outset and that it would not turn out well for any of the students involved.
The decision of the Missouri State Board of Education becomes problematic at best when one considers that no state board of education in any state has ever made a decision to attach two failing school districts (both characterized by concentrated poverty) as a remedy for poor performance. Routinely, such a decision would involve merging the failed school district with one that is performing quite well academically and, at the same time, a school district that is fiscally viable. A fitting example is the recent merger of the North Forest Independent School District (Texas) into the Houston Independent School District. In September, 2013, the Houston system received the $1 million Broad Prize for Urban Education, which implies that it is the best urban school district in the nation. It would have been nearly impossible for the poor academic performance of 5,500 students from North Forest to adversely impact the progress of Houston’s 203,000 students.
In essence, what has occurred is indeed a disturbing political precedent. In the 1950s, Normandy School District was one of the preeminent school districts in the state of Missouri. Concentrated poverty was not on the horizon, and not one African American learner attended school in the district. However, the white flight trend that occurred in the seventies in suburban communities across the country signaled dramatic residential shifts in the racial makeup of the school district. Normandy alumni who graduated prior to the 1950s have an extremely difficult time identifying with the circumstances that prevail in the district today. A front page headline in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on May 5, 2013 proclaimed in two inch-high letters, Normandy High: The Most Dangerous School in the Area. The school reform of punitive disparity in the form of the Missouri State Board of Education proclaimed that the Normandy School District would be closed, effective June 30, 2014.