Missouri should address systemic racial inequity and poverty by focusing on the “whole child” needs of students in its public schools, rethinking education policies, and overhauling the state’s system for handling unaccredited school districts, the Ferguson Commission.
The independent, 16-member panel was assembled by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon last November to conduct a “thorough, wide-ranging, and unflinching study of the social and economic conditions that impede progress, equality, and safety in the St. Louis region.”
The commission’s creation followed unrest that was sparked after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white Ferguson, Mo., police officer and a grand jury’s subsequent decision not to indict the officer. The panel included leaders from St. Louis-area civic organizations, clergy, law enforcement, business, education, and the protest movement.
The 198-page report covers a variety of recommendations for the justice system, social programs, and community organizations.
A major pillar of those recommendations covers the needs of children, particularly those living in poverty and those attending subpar schools.
The report calls on policymakers and community stakeholders to form task forces to explore the possibilities of overhauling the state’s school finance system, and combining or reforming school districts, and to collaborate on best practices in education.
“Our region’s youth present our greatest opportunity to impact positive and lasting change, in this and future generations,” says the report, which often reads more like a conversation than a policy document.
At the report’s release, Gov. Nixon thanked the commission for its “unflinching courage at a moment of reckoning for our state and our nation.” Through the panel’s work, “some experiences that had only been spoken about privately were shared publicly for the first time,” Nixon said.
The report spotlights dramatic variations in educational outcomes, arrest rates, and even life expectancies between residents in the poorest and richest parts of St. Louis County.
Among the report’s largest child-centered recommendations is a call for the state to redesign its school accreditation process so that it is simple, equitable, and transparent. Under a 1993 law, students in unaccredited Missouri districts can transfer into accredited school districts at the cost of the unaccredited district.
This system only exacerbates problems and further strains struggling schools, the commission wrote.
For example, the St. Louis-area Riverview Gardens and Normandy districts, both unaccredited, paid up to $20,000 in tuition per year per child in 2014, a total of more than $9 million between the two districts, to educate students attending schools in other districts, the report says. (Michael Brown graduated from the unaccredited Normandy district just a few months before he was killed.)
“Those students who stay in unaccredited schools find themselves in a school where budgets are tighter, and where some of the most motivated students—including students who have served as leaders, tutors, and behavior models for success—have left the district,” the report notes.
Nixon, a Democrat, has twice vetoed bills that would have created a new system for dealing with unaccredited schools, citing concerns about added provisions in one of the measures that would have created vouchers for nonreligious private schools.
In his speech before the commission, Nixon said efforts have been made to ease the burden on the unaccredited districts under the current law.
He spotlighted a combined $1 million the state had given Riverview Gardens and Normandy for literacy efforts and an agreement between 22 school districts in the St. Louis region to reduce tuition for transferring students and to support teachers in the unaccredited schools.
The commission also called on state and local educators and policymakers to address early-childhood needs and whole-child issues, in particular, non-academic factors like hunger that threaten students’ success in schools.
The state should implement universal prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds and lower the compulsory age of school attendance from 7 to 5, the report says.
The state should also address hunger through a variety of measures, including educating high-poverty schools about the federal community-eligibility provision, which allows them to serve free meals to all students, regardless of family income levels, the report recommends.
The task force called on the state to support school-based clinics to help address the physical, emotional, and mental health needs of students.
Schools should also seek to drive down disparate rates of discipline between black students and their peers, the report recommends.
Those strategies could include professional development on addressing racism, teaching culturally responsive practices, and reworking school discipline policies, it says.
While the report won praise from many in the region, some local leaders said it didn’t go far enough.
State Sen. Maria Chapelle-Nadal, a Democrat whose district includes parts of St. Louis County, said state lawmakers had already filed bills on many of the report’s recommendations, only to see them fail or never even be considered.
Chapelle-Nadal said the report’s education recommendations largely touched on “low-hanging fruit.” It will take more radical changes to address generations of inequality, she said.
“The only way we’re going to be able to change the system that we’re in is to shake things up,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2015 edition of Education Week as To Combat Inequity, Ferguson Panel Urges K-12 Changes