Yesterday I heard an episode of the radio program, “This American Life”, devoted to a topic you probably haven’t thought about in a while, if ever: school desegregation. I’ll link to the program when it becomes available online. I defy you to listen to the remarks by parents in the Francis Howell school district in St. Charles County, a county just to the north of St. Louis and St. Louis County, without deciding that racism is still a problem in the United States. It’s called something different and more polite, e.g. getting away from crime and drugs, looking for better schools, but it’s still racism.
The antecedent article to the radio program appears to be here. There’s also an academic article on school desegregation here.
The gist of the story is that after the Normandy school district in St. Louis County lost its state accreditation under state law the students whose local school district it was had the right to go to other districts. The district selected for the 1,000 kids who elected to do so was the Francis Howell district about 30 miles north. If you’re thinking that there were probably other candidate districts nearer by, you’re right. Normandy was making things as difficult for its students as it possibly could.
Just to put things in perspective over a half century ago I lived just south and east of the Normandy school district, Normandy was majority white, blue collar or lower middle class, and wasn’t anything to write home about. It has apparently deteriorated since then, is majority black, and has joined with the Wellston district which even back then was horrible. Ferguson immediately adjoins these districts.
Parents in the Francis Howell district were clearly horrified at the development and when the school district organized a meeting in which they might air their thoughts, quite a few of them said some pretty awful things, as recorded in the program.
The author of the article and the program has a clear point of view: the solution for poor, mostly black school districts is a return to court-ordered desegregation. That’s a view a I held for many years but I’m sad to say I think it has passed its moment. While that solution might have worked 40 years ago, we chose a different path. We imported a substantial, largely impoverished and unskilled working population to replace the shortfall in young white workers coming into the job market and today just over half of students nationwide are white and today desegregation would take more than bussing—it would take forced resettlement of the population.
Let’s consider the problem a little more critically. As this article should convince you the problem with schools isn’t strictly one of spending. There’s a wide variation in per-student spending in Illinois high school districts all the way from around $29,000 per student (in Rondout, a northern Chicago suburb) to Paris-Union at $6,400 (Paris-Union is in downstate Illinois near the Indiana border). Per pupil spending in Chicago’s high school district is around $17,000 per student.
Differences in achievement can’t be satisfactorily explained based on spending per student, poverty, racial makeup, or geography. We don’t have enough money to spend $29,000 on every student. There aren’t enough white kids in Illinois or California or New York to create schools in which a majority of kids aren’t black and/or Hispanic and it’s hard for me to imagine bussing Chicago school kids to Iowa. Or Iowa school kids to Chicago. Even the academic paper cited above doesn’t tell me that putting a few percentage points of white kids into schools that are otherwise 100% black will solve those schools’ problems.
I think that problem is a cultural one and I mean that in the broadest sense. I don’t see any ready solution.