You’ve All Heard “The Question,” But What Does it Mean?

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Eva Kappas, Reporter

At RISE STL, a youth-organized online event tackling education inequality within St. Louis, Ishmaiah Moore describes her experience with “the question.” A 2019 graduate from Hazelwood West, she ponders the conclusions people may draw about her, solely from her school name: “I think in the North County community, people think of it as the ‘fancy one’. Then whenever I branch out to South County schools, or students who go to Ladue or a Parkway district, they kind of look down upon Hazelwood West; [they think] that it’s like the ‘ghetto school.’”

“Where did you go to high school?”

We’ve all asked “the question,” heard “the question,” and then said “Burroughs” with a degree of humble pride. But our feelings with it may be very different from someone who grew up just five miles North or South.

No matter the response to this question, religious, racial and socioeconomic associations flood our minds. Though we don’t like to admit it, this classic St. Louis question is popular because it provides context in which to see a new acquaintance, drawing what we think is a window into their life- but really just drawing them into a box.

“I think the truth is somewhere in the middle, and a lot of people will project the same kind of misconceptions they have about race and poverty onto Hazelwood West,” Moore explains. “That goes for outsiders and even the students; if they see one incident, it will just affirm how they’ve been conditioned into believing students who come from minority and lower-income backgrounds are and behave. That adds to the cycle of people being disinterested in investing into Hazelwood West and into North County schools in general.” In St. Louis especially, the disparity in quality of education varies greatly among and within public and private institutions. And with COVID-19, the gaps between public and private institutions will widen further. As reported by McKinsey & Company in a 2020 assessment of achievement gaps and COVID-19, “Lower-income students are less likely to have access to high-quality remote learning or to a conducive learning environment, such as a quiet space with minimal distractions, devices they do not need to share, high-speed internet, and parental academic supervision.” Although it is well understood today that price determines quality, education wasn’t always a commodity to be bought and sold–and the history of that shift is what the RISE summit attempted to explain.

White Flight and Segregation

In order to understand the origins of racially and economically segregated schools, we must go back to St. Louis in the 1900s. White people were worried that the influx of Black residents arriving during the Great Migration would steal their jobs and lower their property value if low-income Black families moved into White neighborhoods. In 1916, St. Louisans had a referendum where they passed an ordinance that prevent-ed anyone from buying a home in a neighborhood more than 75% occupied by another race. After that was made illegal by a Supreme Court decision the following year, some neighborhoods employed racial covenants, asking every family on a block to sign a legal document promising never to sell to an African American. When white families moved to the suburbs in “white flight,” residents in many historically Black neighborhoods in the city were evicted in order to build highways and “urban renewal” projects. “We removed so-called slum neighborhoods… We have spent enormous sums of public money to spatially reinforce human segregation patterns. And it’s been very frightening to see the result.” said Michael Allen, director of the Preservation Research Office, to STL Magazine.  STL Magazine relays that “Urban geographers describe St. Louis as a donut hole—empty in the middle and encircled by doughy counties.”

And moving out of these now “empty,” low-income areas was made nearly impossible by redlining: the policy of federal lenders to refuse loans to people living in and near Black neighborhoods on the premise that the loans were a “poor financial risk.”

Today, St. Louis remains one of the top ten most segregated cities, emphasized with the literal dividing line of Delmar Boulevard.

The Property Tax Problem

On the Zoom screen of the RISE STL Virtual Training, a slide reads in all caps: “The funding of public schools by property taxes ensures economic segregation due to redlining.”

Because school districts are funded by property taxes (the taxes you pay on your house), rich areas with higher property taxes will have more money for their school systems. In this way, schools are segregated economically. Rich people with the means to live in a wealthy area and pay higher property tax will have access to a “good” school district, while low-income families must send their children to less-funded school districts with fewer resources. While public schools also receive state and federal funding, RISE STL says, “that does not even begin to close the gap” caused by disparities in local property tax funding. Desegregation bussing programs have attempted to combat racial segregation between schools by bussing students to schools within or outside their school districts. In St. Louis, the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation (VICC) provides St. Louis City students transportation to suburban schools, allowing them to receive a better education than otherwise available to them.

Ella Galvin

The VICC bussing program has allowed over 70,000 Black students from St. Louis City to attend schools in St. Louis County since 1981, and yet the program has started to phase out and will entirely stop admitting new applicants by 2024. Clayton school district already ended its bussing program this year. As to what will happen after the bussing program terminates, Eric Knost, Rockwood superintendent and VICC chairman for the 2017-2018 school year, tells the Riverfront Times: “We really haven’t even scratched the surface yet on what’s to come.” “

We know that segregation in schools ended in 1964, however, I’m sure we can tell that segregation in schools hasn’t ended just by looking at the makeup of schools that [you all] went to,” Sunny Lu, a Ladue senior and speaker at RISE STL, explains. “This has a lot to do with discriminatory housing policies. If you live in an area that’s predominately white and predominantly wealthy, then that’s what your school is going to look like.”

Brown v. Board, Backlash, and Present-Day Struggles

And that’s not even taking private schools into consideration. After Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 landmark Supreme Court ruling that ended school segregation, many white families that opposed integration pulled their children from the public school system. They enrolled in newly created segregation academies, private schools with fees that effectively made the school only accessible to rich white students. These schools received public funding to increase the quality of education for white students, while many Southern public schools were shut down for a period of time rather than integrating. John Burroughs School was not a segregation academy, but private schools themselves provide students with an advantage over public school students through resources, smaller class sizes, and college counseling services not available in lower-income public school districts.

Nevertheless, some think that it is impossible to achieve true education equality with the existence of private schools.“While not all private schools have explicitly racist or exclusionary foundations, the highest quality of public education simply cannot exist with rich parents being able to simply opt out of public education via private schools,” Lu says. “Education equality can be achieved within our lifetimes, it’s just going to take a lot of effort to get there and de-normalizing the idea that it’s okay for some people to receive a better education than others.” Brianna Chandler, a RISE STL Organizer and WashU student, thinks “Education equality definitely relies on dismantling capitalism and getting rid of private schools.” On the opposite side, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos consistently supports school choice and privatization, increasing the quality of education for some through charter schools and school vouchers.

Smaller steps to improving public education could take the form of reallocating state funds to low-income school districts. By rearranging already collected money from state income taxes, families would have no tax increase, and students in low-income districts would benefit from more resources. Even without systemic changes, Chandler still believes there are ways to break down stereotypes and engage with their peers.“Get involved with initiatives that bring students from different schools together…[such as] a program called Youth Leadership St. Louis, which is composed of a lot of students from a variety of schools,” she says. It is also helpful in getting involved in your community, as well as social media… especially as people are talking more about politics now on social media, that can expose someone to views they wouldn’t have encountered before.”

*See the full PDF under Current Issues for a graphic relating to the article!*