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Time running out – eventually – for school deseg transfer program

school buses
Mo. Gov. Jay Nixon announced the release of funds for public school busing today. (via Flickr/wheany)

The end isn’t near for the area’s long-running school desegregation program, but it’s coming.

Area school superintendents in charge of the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp. , which has run the program since a 1999 settlement established new rules the St. Louis-St. Louis County student transfers, are weighing one final five-year extension to the plan, taking it through the 2023-24 school year. They met Thursday to discuss the plan, with a final vote expected later this year.

If the extension wins approval, the program that has let tens of thousands of African-American students in the city transfer to county schools, and non-black students in the county transfer to city magnet schools, would at first be limited to siblings of current participants. (We Live Here looked at the program last month.)

Those entering the program in kindergarten of 2023 would be allowed to stay through high school graduation, meaning that the transfers would end 13 years after that.

Unlike transfer programs based on poor student achievement, such as the one that allows students to transfer now out of Normandy and Riverview Gardens, the program administered by VICC is based solely on race. The St. Louis program may not be the longest such transfer plan in the nation — that distinction probably belongs to Boston — but it’s among them.

David Glaser, who has been executive director of VICC since 2007, says that legally, race-based programs such as the one that began in St. Louis in the 1980s can’t continue “in perpetuity.” The local plan has been extended three times already and is currently set to begin shutting down in 2019.

Without another extension, students in the program at that time would be allowed to continue until they graduate, but no new ones would be accepted.

Glaser acknowledged that the education landscape has changed quite a bit since the program grew out of a lawsuit filed by Minnie Liddell and other parents in 1972. It led first to transfers within the city, then to the city-county plan. He specifically noted progress in the city school system under Superintendent Kelvin Adams.

“With all of the improvements that that they’ve made in the city,” Glaser said in a recent interview, “he (Adams) doesn’t want to do anything that would hurt the credibility of the options that are being offered within the St. Louis Public Schools.

“He continues to add additional options for kids within the city as well, and in essence he doesn’t want our programs to be competing with those options.”

After Thursday’s meeting, Adams said that families have a choice to go to the county, just as they have a choice to attend schools in the city that have improved in recent years.

Any changes in the basis of the program is far in the future, Adams said.

“Right now it's a race-based desegregation program,” he said. “The question becomes does it continue to exist past this, but not based on race, and I think that's a decision way way way way down the road, that some other people will probably make a decision about it — not us.”

Down from the peak

The program overseen by VICC has dwindled over the years. At its peak, in 1998-99, more than 14,600 students took part. That number dropped to nearly 4,600 in the school year just ended. Only 11 school districts in St. Louis County are accepting new students.

That trend reflects VICC’s desire to bring the plan to a logical conclusion.

“We are presently working on a strategic plan to wrap up the race-based program over time that is sensitive to the needs of all constituencies,” the agency said in a recent response to a lawsuit charging that it is unconstitutionally barring a black student who lives in St. Louis County from attending a city charter school.

If another five-year extension is approved, beginning in the 2019-20 school year, the only new students allowed to join the program would be siblings of students currently transferring. That change would bring to an estimated 925 new students during the extension, compared with about 2,300 during the current extension.

Under the plan that has been refined over the past several months, if another five-year extension is approved, beginning in the 2019-20 school year the only new students allowed to join the program would be siblings of students currently transferring.  That change would bring to an estimated 925 new students during the extension, compared with about 2,300 during the current extension.

As the number of new placements went down, so would VICC’s staffing and budget, with EducationPlus, the area’s school district cooperative, possibly taking over administrative functions as needed.

Asked if he could provide some examples of the benefits that the transfer program has brought, Glaser said that would be easy: Just look at any of the newsletters VICC publishes regularly, focusing on students and volunteers who have helped make a difference.

In some cases, he said, second- and even third-generation students are taking part in the program, in an effort to find the best school possible.

He singled out one student who went to a county high school and didn’t even graduate. After a brush with trouble, he turned himself around and started his own business.

“He said that sometimes it’s education that makes a difference, that gives you the opportunity to go to college and be successful in that way,” Glaser said. “But in this particular case, he went to this county high school and saw families there and saw kids and parents who had their own businesses and were successful.

“He figured hey, if they can do it, I can do it. So it was just an opportunity to see a role model.”

'The research is really clear that being educated in a more diverse environment benefits all kids.' — David Glaser, head of VICC

Just sitting in a classroom with people who are different from you are can make a big difference, Glaser added.

“The research is really clear that being educated in a more diverse environment benefits all kids,” he said. “It benefits kids from the city that want to participate in the program, and it also benefits kids in the county that have an opportunity to interact with people that area little bit different, a little bit more diverse from what their background is.

“So it’s a win-win situation. And probably my biggest concern is that over time, if the program goes away, I’d hate to take that opportunity away.”

Even if the program can’t continue as a transfer plan based on race, Glaser envisions it continuing on another basis — socioeconomic status, perhaps, or other areas that lead to educational disparities.

“What could the program start evolving to?” he said. “What might be its mission and goals? How could we all work together to make the quality of education in the greater St. Louis metropolitan area as good a quality as it could possibly be?”

He said that such a transformation would require a new way of thinking.

“Unfortunately,” Glaser said, “we don’t think regionally. But what if we were able to say that if you’re considering St. Louis as a possible place to relocate your corporate headquarters, it doesn’t matter where your offices are located or it doesn’t matter where your families live, because all of the school districts in the area are top quality.

“That’s not part of our culture. The standard joke is where did you go to high school, because people make judgments based on your answer to that question. Hopefully, that’s an area where we can really grow over time. That’s really possibly what VICC could evolve into — not a race-based program, but an opportunity to provide the highest possible quality of education for all kids everywhere in St. Louis.”

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.