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White school district sends black kids back to failed schools

After a landmark ruling in Missouri that allowed thousands of black students to transfer out of failing schools, the board of education has reversed course.
A group of students outside of Normandy High School just moments after the bell rang at the end of school in Wellston, St. Louis County, Mo.
A group of students outside of Normandy High School just moments after the bell rang at the end of school in Wellston, St. Louis County, Mo.

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Hundreds of mostly poor minority students who used a controversial Missouri law to transfer out of failing schools will be sent back to their home districts next school year, following a tense battle in the legislature and a slew of politically charged decisions by the department of education.

The reversal puts the academic fate of some of the state’s most needy and disadvantaged students at risk.

"Children have a right and a need to have quality schools in their neighborhood."'

Last summer, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld an earlier ruling that allowed students from unaccredited school districts to transfer to better schools. Thousands of students from the African-American suburbs of St. Louis streamed across the border to much wealthier, white districts and better-performing schools closer to home. But the exodus triggered a number of unexpected consequences. The failing districts were financially responsible for paying all transfer-related expenses, including tuition and transportation costs.

As a result, the transfers nearly crippled one school district in particular, the Normandy schools, which has paid about $10.4 million to a dozen different school districts. The costs for the Normandy district, which is about 97% black and whose student body is deeply impoverished, forced the legislature to appropriate supplemental funding to keep it afloat.

Attempts by the legislature to tweak the law to alleviate some of the burdens placed on schools by the transfer law were stymied when Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, threatened to veto a proposed bill. The legislature’s intransience forced the issue back to the state board of education.

The board recently voted to replace the Normandy School District with a new district, the Normandy Schools Collaborative effective July 1. The new district includes the same boundaries and schools as the old district. But by changing its name, the district is now no longer unaccredited and therefore eligible under the transfer law.

The decision to rebrand the district has offered a legal loophole to the districts that had reluctantly and begrudgingly accepted the minority transfers in the first place.

RELATED: Missouri school busing causes ‘crippling’ fallout

Last Friday, school leaders at the well-off Francis Howell district announced that they would no longer accept incoming transfer students and that about 400 students who had previously transferred to the district this school year would no longer be welcomed.

“FHSD has consistently held the beliefs that transferring students from an unaccredited school district is not the solution to improving struggling schools, and that the funds spent on tuition and transportation for transfer students can be more effectively spent on educating the whole Normandy student population,” read a statement released by the Francis Howell School District.

“Children have a right and a need to have quality schools in their neighborhood.”

The financially strapped and academically struggling Normandy School District paid Francis Howell more than $4 million in tuition costs and nearly a million in transportation costs.

The transfer law, with all of its hitches and unintended consequences, was seen by some as a way to rescue disadvantaged students from failing institutions. About 2,200 students from the Normandy and the nearby Riverview Gardens school district opted to transfer. Many of the students attending the districts live in deep poverty. Normandy has the second highest rate of poverty in the state, at 92%.

“Our focus and mission remains the same as the new Normandy Schools Collaborative – to ensure that every student is successful inside the classroom by reaching their full academic potential,” said Dr. Ty McNichols, superintendent of the Normandy School District. “We look forward to the upcoming school year.”

News of the Supreme Court’s upholding of the transfer law initially sparked anger and fear among some white Francis Howell parents.

“I deserve to not have to worry about my children getting stabbed, or taking a drug, or getting robbed,” one mother said during a school board meeting, referring to the prospective arrival of Normandy students.

“We don’t want this here in Francis Howell,” another parent said.

But those harsh sentiments largely gave way to magnanimity once Normandy students arrived at their so-called welcoming schools. Stories of goodwill and new friendships were the subject of local news stories. One Normandy transfer made headlines after he missed the bus and rode his bicycle 30 miles to Francis Howell High School.

Things seemed to be changing on the ground in Normandy, too. In the months following the mass-transfers, the remaining students and school community came together to celebrate a spirit of new beginnings. They held pep rallies and welcome-back-to-school gatherings. Students at Normandy High School said they began tutoring each other to improve the school's academic ranking, which had bottomed out and led to consecutive years of bad standings with the board of education. The reputation of Normandy as a violent place seemed to be fading, too, as fewer students seemed to put a damper on bad behavior.

And McNichols, who took the Normandy superintendent job just weeks after the Supreme Court’s ruling that upheld the transfer law, brought in a new team and new expectations for a turnaround.

Indeed, walking the halls of Normandy High School at the beginning of the school year, there was a sense of optimism despite the dire state of things.

“Although we are at our lowest point, I know we can turn it around. I know we can get stronger and prove to everybody that Normandy isn’t what they think we are or what they hear on the news,” Samone Smith, a senior at the school told msnbc at the time.

Yet the positive energy did little to belie the cold realities and political turmoil stirred up by the transfer situation.

The costs of tuition among the dozen or so school districts that accepted Normandy transfers varied, climbing as high as $20,000 per student, well above the $12,000 per student, per year that Normandy spends on its own students. Normandy was spending about $1.5 million each month to educate kids outside of the district.

State lawmakers haggled over how best to rectify the situation. The state board of education in May decided to replace the district rather than dissolve it.

"In essence, what has occurred is indeed a disturbing political precedent."'

The board capped what the new school district would pay districts that accepted Normandy transfers and voted to withdraw tuition funding for transfers who had not attended Normandy schools prior to transferring. Normandy officials say a number of families from outside the district moved into cheap-rent apartments in the district to take advantage of the transfer law.

“To do nothing is to close the district in -- you can pick your month,” Peter Herschend, state board president, told the St. Louis Dispatch. “Somewhere in October, November, December, it will cease to function.”

Stanton Lawrence, who served as superintendent of the Normandy School District between 2008 and 2012, wrote in a recent blog post -- republished by education historian Diane Ravitch -- that the drama surrounding the district and its replacement made sense, given its terrible academic record.

The school district had been provisionally accredited for nearly eighteen years, he wrote, with the dismal academic performance of its students largely to blame.

“One could certainly make a strong case that the time had arrived for the state board of education to take meaningful action and send a clear message that a change was imperative if Normandy students were indeed deserving of a high quality educational experience,” he wrote.

But what was kept strangely quiet during the board’s deliberations preceding was its decision just two years earlier to merge another failing nearby district, Wellston, into the troubled Normandy schools. Prior to the merger, the state department of education had direct oversight of Wellston for five years, according to Lawrence. Every student in Wellston was black and 98% were poor.

“In essence, both communities were experiencing concentrated poverty and racial segregation. Was this decision made to effectively segregate the students in both school districts?” Lawrence wrote.

In the 1950s Normandy was one of the preeminent school district in the state, he said. It was an all-white district then. But like so many other communities across the country, Normandy was transformed by white flight and "dramatic residential shifts" in the racial makeup of the school and school community.

This history, he argues, is the long and sad road that has led to the issues facing Normandy today and that has so vexed lawmakers and school officials about how best to clean up the mess.

“In essence, what has occurred is indeed a disturbing political precedent,” Lawrence said.