Edmund Lee has walked the halls of Gateway Science Academy, a city charter school in south St. Louis, since he was in kindergarten. Lee, a third-grader, thrives at Gateway, currently standing alongside his peers with a 3.79 GPA.
"The school is great," LaShieka White, Lee’s mother, told Vox. "The teachers are great. It has a family atmosphere, and that’s the reason why we’re trying to keep him at his school."
But a local desegregation policy in St. Louis bars Lee from attending Gateway next year — in part because his family moved, but also because he is African American.
Lee’s family moved to the nearby suburb Maryland Heights in March, but to a home within the boundaries of St. Louis's voluntary school transfer program so he can remain enrolled at Gateway. The program allows students from suburban St. Louis County to attend schools in the St. Louis City school district and vice versa.
But when White contacted the school’s administration to confirm whether the transfer would work with the new address, she found out there was more to the policy than permanent residence.
"I emailed administration at his school to see if he was able to attend, since we were moving," she told Vox. Upon reading the guidelines sent to her, she learned "he wouldn’t be able to attend because of his race."
It turns out the transfer program came from a decades-old desegregation policy that allows nonblack suburban students to transfer to schools in the city, and for students who live in the city to transfer to schools in the suburbs if they’re not white.
On Wednesday, the family filed a lawsuit against the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation, a nonprofit organization that oversees the policy, charging them as "solely responsible for extending the race-based transfer program." The VICC responded saying they are bound to uphold the transfer program based on the local desegregation settlement agreement.
While the program was enacted to address unequal educational opportunities due to race, Lee’s circumstances are making some wonder if the policy is reinforcing segregation by denying Lee the ability to enroll simply because of his racial identity.
Lee can’t go to his school next year because of a local desegregation settlement agreement
As the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) noted in an official statement, Lee’s transfer decision is the result of residency guidelines set in 1980 to desegregate the school system:
Even if the family’s new St. Louis County school district participated in the transfer program, the student would still not be able to transfer. This situation stems from the 1980 U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that the St. Louis City and County schools were maintaining segregated systems. In 1983, the schools reached a Desegregation Settlement Agreement allowing African-American students to transfer into primarily white suburban school districts and for non-African-American students to attend St. Louis schools. The goal was to try to balance the racial makeup of the city and county schools.
Just before the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education to make racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional nationwide, St. Louis's Board of Education attempted a three-step plan to desegregate its educational system from 1954 to 1956.
In addition to desegregating schools and local junior and teacher colleges, the board started defining enrollment by where people lived. As Washington University of St. Louis law professor Kimberly Jade Norwood noted, residency didn’t immediately rectify educational inequality brought forth by racial segregation, since neighborhoods are often carved out along racial lines.
"The schools in St. Louis city — as is true today in most urban districts — were virtually all black," said Norwood (who is the mother of Vox intern Candice Norwood). "But white folks were not in the city schools. They had taken their kids to private schools. They went to parochial schools, or white flight — they moved out to the suburbs."
Those suburban and private schools were far better resourced than the city public schools, with a largely (if not entirely) black student body.
In 1972, though, Minnie Liddell and other concerned black parents filed a class-action lawsuit against the local board of education to make sure their children received an equal quality education as other students in the surrounding area.
In 1980, the parties reached a desegregation settlement agreement. The suburban St. Louis County schools would have to find ways to increase the percentage of black students to 25 percent. To make sure this happened, 15,000 black students were bused to the suburbs over a five-year period.
They did this by creating the voluntary interdistrict transfer policy implemented in the 1983 to '84 school year.
Students then had more flexibility for where they wanted to go. But because segregation created separate but unequal resources in each district, not all choices had the same weight. As a result, the agreement also included building magnet schools to literally act like magnets to attract white students to attend nonwhite schools.
"No white parent — indeed, no parent — in the suburbs, where they have really nice schools and air conditioning and books and basketball [hoops] with nets, [were] going to send their kids into the city schools to be in some building that has mold and has no windows, and all of this stuff," Norwood said.
The policy persists today, standing between third-grader Lee and his school after he and his family move. Unfortunately for Lee, some city charter schools like Gateway Science Academy, which isn't a magnet school, operate under the transfer program policy, so Lee's racial identity disqualifies him from attending that school after his family moves.
Can the desegregation policy be changed?
After meeting with Lee's principal, who said they'd do what they can to help Lee stay at Gateway Science Academy, White created a Change.org petition to show there was public support to keep Lee at his school.
So far, more than 132,000 people have signed it. Some signers expressed sympathy for the family. Others said they've faced similar roadblocks. Overall, many, including White, question whether the desegregation policy has run its course.
"As a parent, you are an advocate for your child. And we're just trying to advocate for our son to stay in school," she said.
The transfer policy today has changed since it was originally implemented more than 30 years ago: 4,500 (nonwhite) city students are selected to transfer into some suburban schools, and 140 (nonblack) students from the county districts are enrolled in schools in the city.
"The ratio, or the racial representation of 140 white students, is not going to move the needle that much in terms of moving us closer to integration," Washington University of St. Louis professor of education Ebony Duncan said. Still, she added, the longevity of the area's transfer program is atypical.
"This type of transfer program, especially operating this long, is fairly unique," Duncan told Vox. "A lot of local districts have retreated from desegregation efforts."
Whatever happened to desegregation programs, anyway?
Desegregation settlements like St. Louis's are not necessarily common today. Last year, a desegregation settlement was reached between Robertson County Board of Education in Tennessee and the Department of Justice to rezone the school districts after demonstrating that they failed to comply with the terms set in a 1970 desegregation plan.
Much of this stems from a 1991 Supreme Court decision that changed the way desegregation measures were evaluated across the country.
After Oklahoma City Board of Education v. Dowell, school districts no longer had to eliminate segregation. Instead, a new "good faith" standard was put in place. School districts were allowed to apply for unitary status that released them from court oversight as long as they could prove they had done everything practicable to desegregate, even if the schools were still, in fact, segregated.
Indeed, Dowell opened the door to dismantle desegregation efforts that some school districts had successfully achieved, putting them at risk for resegregation.
Shortly after the Dowell ruling, Missouri filed motions for unitary status. After multiple hearings, a new 10-year desegregation settlement agreement was created in 1999, and has been renewed multiple times through five-year extensions, with the next extension set to be renewed in 2019.
But today, the effectiveness of the policy remains unclear.
White told Vox that both black and white parents complain about the area's racialized transfer policy. And yet in 2013, controversy around the transfer policy in St. Louis County's Normandy School District highlighted that many school districts still have separate and unequal resources that impact the quality of education students are receiving.
Indeed, public schools nationwide are more segregated now than they were almost half a century ago, which is why Duncan added that it's difficult to assess whether taking race out of the transfer policy will change things.
"Will we see larger numbers of white students leaving the city schools?" she said. "Probably. Will we see some increase in black students coming into the city schools? Maybe. But I largely doubt that, because if we're thinking about reasons why parents move to the suburbs, it's usually because of school quality. So if parents are relatively satisfied with their schools in the suburbs, I don't think we're going to see too many parents sending their kids to the city, black or white."
Ultimately, Lee's situation is as much about school choice as it is educational equity that continues to play out along the lines of residency and racial identity.
"I'm not sure that the interdistrict program as it is currently designed, in considering both race and residency, can continue in this form," Duncan said. "However, I'm not sure who benefits from that and who loses."