School deseg: history, politics, impact, future?

Through a great recent post at UrbanSTL that led me to an equally great older article in the Riverfront Times, I discovered a book called Stepping Over the Color Line: African American Students in White Suburban Schools, by Amy Stuart Wells and Robert L. Crain. This book, published by Yale University Press in 1997, offers deep background on the roots of school desegregation in St. Louis; a clear description of the voluntary interdistrict transfer program; an analysis of its execution and consequences; a sense of how St. Louisans, black, white, urban, and suburban, felt about the program; and an understanding of the political realities involved with the program.

Given the controversy over this program, I was startled to read, near the end of Stepping Over the Color Line, that in a representative year of the deseg program (1993), it consumed only 3 percent of the state’s total budget, compared to the separate 25 percent of the state budget that went to education. Though politicians may have used the program demagogically as a symbol of government waste and handouts to the undeserving black poor, in the end the amount of the budget devoted to it was relatively small. And many black students, victims of Missouri’s long and ongoing pattern of unequal housing, educational, and employment opportunity, did not benefit at all from the program.

On the other hand, as Wells and Crain demonstrate, many of those who did participate in the program did benefit significantly. Wells and Crain also show the falseness of the alternative that opponents of the program often proposed: to use the deseg money to fix up the city schools instead. Politically, that was never an option. The deseg money was there because the courts forced the state to provide it.

Or, more accurately, the suburban and city school districts that agreed on the out-of-court settlement, in combination with the courts, forced the state of Missouri (which refused to participate in the settlement talks) to provide the money.

These St. Louis-area school districts agreed to the settlement not because they acknowledged that they had helped to create a racially unjust system and wanted to atone for their sins. Instead they agreed to the settlement because (1) they didn’t want to risk losing local control of their district, and (2) they realized that the settlement would mean lots of money for them.

SLPS, though it may have lost some good students and committed parents to county districts, also saw significant gains from the settlement: for each student who left the district for one in the county, SLPS still received 50 percent of the funds they would normally have spent on that student. In addition, SLPS got additional funding for curriculum development, personnel, and capital improvements; and for the creation and maintenance of the magnet school program.

The biggest losers were county districts like Wellston, Jennings, Normandy, and others that were already predominantly black and therefore received none of the money that flowed to the city and the rest of the county during the desegregation project. They were basically in the same plight as the all-black schools and neighborhoods in the city, yet they received no help from the state in the desegregation agreement.

SLPS, Wells and Crain helped me see, were both victims and perpetrators of segregation and attempts to remedy it. They created a separate and unequal system before Brown v. Board of Education and were slow and ineffective in dismantling it after the 1954 decision. At the same time, they were also in a bind because of the racial politics of the time, with rapid white flight (often spurred by racial fear) from the city and intense racially motivated demands from the white families who remained. The city schools often did a mediocre job of actually using their desegregation-related resources to educate black students. This mediocrity is not surprising when one considers that in the late 1980s and early 1990s the school board included a powerful contingent of anti-desegregation members with ties to a local white supremacist group.

Despite the limitations of the St. Louis city-county voluntary transfer program, the book convinces me that it was something extraordinary—a real if small step in the direction of justice, one that gave black students a real chance, in fact, to achieve success in the way that conservatives always prescribe—to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

After all, don’t the images of black students standing on deserted corners by a despair-filled housing projects waiting at 5:30 a.m. for buses to take them on the long ride to school call to mind other famous bootstrap examples of black Americans—Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Ralph Ellison—who endured discomfort and hardship in order to grasp the rare chance at an education?

For the most part, however, white St. Louisans didn’t see it that way. They just saw those students’ long journeys as a waste of money. Or they focused resentfully on the taxi cabs that took home the ones who had to stay late for some athletic contest or disciplinary consequence. Or they felt pity for the transfer students, pity born of aesthetic distaste for such a seemingly nonsensical arrangement—without understanding the much more disturbing nonsense of the historical and present color line in St. Louis.

It’s clear that ignoring the educational problems caused by segregation does not work. In recent years, a number of the virtually all-black suburban districts passed over by the desegregation settlement have lost their accreditation, and the Supreme Court has ruled that parents in those districts have a right to send their kids to schools elsewhere. It’s the same issue that led to the desegregation settlement that will end in three years. The underlying racial, economic, and political realities have not really changed. It’s just that now the conflict is even more pronounced within St. Louis County.

Looking at a district like Wellston or Riverview Gardens, one realizes that, were it not for all the desegregation money pouring in from the state, SLPS would be in much, much worse shape than it is today.

So what will happen in 2014 when the program ends?

Frank Kovarik Frank Kovarik (13 Posts)

Frank Kovarik teaches high school English in St. Louis, where he lives with his wife and three daughters. He blogs at Corresponding Fractions.


  • Seanebryant

    I was a participant in the “deseg” program back in the mid-1980’s. There is no question that the opportunities I had as a result of attending the county school district were far greater. In some ways I was ill-equipped to deal with the social landscape that the arrangement necessarily forced upon us. But there is no question that I benefitted from the program…