Jane Turner should remind us of Brown
(Originally published on the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch website on Wednesday, August 18, 2010.)
This summer, many St. Louis school leaders received a startling and, to their minds, an unappetizing surprise from the Missouri Supreme Court.
The upsetting court decision may be referred to as Jane Turner in honor of its lead plaintiff. Its ruling was direct and simple with two parts. Pupils in unaccredited districts could transfer to nearby accredited districts. This affirmed state policy should have surprised few observers. However, the rest of the ruling was the “kicker.”
The court ruling insists that the destination districts must accept all applicants from the unaccredited districts. Moreover, the unaccredited districts must pay for these migrating students’ tuition at their new schools.
In plain speech, the ruling meant that increased numbers of students of color would have the opportunity to learn the school curriculum among white students in accredited schools. The only unaccredited school districts in our area of Missouri are St. Louis and Riverview Gardens.
The language of the Missouri Supreme Court should sound familiar to all Missourians. Slightly more than 50 years ago, the [wikipop]Brown v. Board of Education[/wikipop] ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 sought a similar result — the opportunity for African-American students to sit in classrooms with white pupils in their more amply provisioned sites of learning.
This comparison of Jane Turner to Brown underlines another similarity between the two court actions. White individual and institutional response was fast, furious and fearsome after the announcement of the Brown decision. “How dare you!” True, mid-20th century social norms allowed openly racist attacks on the Warren Court and those individuals and groups that supported the Brown ruling. The “colorblindness” that casts a rosy tint through our 21st-century glasses very well may restrict any openly racist utterances in the wake of Jane Turner. However, will this reticence remain as the fires are stoked on both sides of this decision?
Suburban districts in the region already have drawn a sharp line in the sand related to the Jane Turner ruling. “We have no classroom space available for these transfer students,” their officials and spokespersons assert. Really? Let’s ponder this claim by raising a simple question. If a new computer software company had built new offices in the district and a small army of new, affluent, mainly white students had arrived at its schools’ doors, would they be denied a desk? Let’s be honest with ourselves and one another. Surely, these particular transfers would be enrolled, even without the ‘space” for attempted pupil transfers from St. Louis and Riverview Gardens.
Twenty-five area school districts, as of Aug. 7, have taken their case to the Missouri Supreme Court for relief and reconsideration of the Jane Turner decision. Perhaps the court will return with a Brown II-type response: with “all deliberate speed.” Equality was not well served in 1955, and the court’s mandate for “all deliberate speed” became “with all deliberate slowness.” Can we expect anything different to happen in 2010 or 2011? Probably not.
Moreover, the Jane Turner decision is an equal-opportunity smash-mouth ruling. It imposes a liability on the unaccredited districts, St. Louis and Riverview Gardens. And these unaccredited districts are confronting specific financial demons, none of which arise especially from the Jane Turner court ruling. Where in the world, in the midst of their own near-crippling financial distress, will they find the money to pay the migrating students’ tuition at another, probably more expensive, district? The Jane Turner-mandated tuition payments simply cannot be squeezed from already-exhausted budgets in St. Louis and Riverview Gardens.
Probably, the St. Louis and Riverview Gardens school districts falling into bankruptcy would constitute a public relations nightmare on top of the chaos occasioned by inadequate tax revenues. This result could not be swept under the racism rug. No, any reasonable — even if unsatisfactory — result to this legal, social and moral conundrum will leave these two districts intact but drowning in red ink. And suburban districts in the St. Louis area predictably will rack up huge legal bills in order to keep their district lines intact.
The situation is tragic. In another time, the Jane Turner ruling might be seen as an effort to liberate the lives of St. Louis and Riverview Garden children from less-than-adequate opportunities for a robust education. The harsh financial realities of the present time coupled with the latent racism of suburban escape neither are to be hypothetically nor magically resolved. And the Jane Turner ruling will leave a similarly troublesome legacy for Missourians as Americans have endured since Brown.
For more information, visit: UMSL education scholar publishes op-ed in St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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