You can expect few school reformers, especially those in Beltway think tanks, to pay any mind to yesterday’s release of recommendations for criminal justice and school reform by the Ferguson Commission formed last year after the murder of Michael Brown by now-former Police Officer Darren Wilson. After all, there are still far too many in the movement that still don’t understand that it is as important to discuss the issues outside of schoolhouses that are as important (and are affected by) what happens inside them.
But there are plenty of reasons why reformers should pay plenty of close attention to the recommendations in Forward Through Ferguson: A Path Toward Racial Equality. One reason? The Ferguson Commission offers some important thoughts, especially when it comes to expanding school choice as well as stemming the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline. Another: Because the approach of tackling both criminal justice and educational issues undertaken by the panel should be done by reformers as part of systemic efforts on the ground.
Plenty of scrutiny has been placed on the law enforcement agencies, courts, and school districts within St. Louis and its 89 immediate suburbs in the year since Brown’s slaying on the streets of Ferguson. Washington Post columnist Radley Balko and others revealed how the patchwork of municipal courts in St. Louis County were exorbitantly fining poor and minority citizens for minor driving offenses (and in many cases, putting them in jail) in order to generate revenue generator for city governments; in some cities, as much as 40 percent of city dollars were generated from putting residents into criminal justice systems. The U.S. Department of Justice further highlighted these problems this past March with its scathing review of the Ferguson Police Department’s racialist policing practices.
Meanwhile the failings of traditional districts within St. Louis and its surrounding suburbs, an issue that has been widely-discussed in Missouri for years, garnered even more national attention. Dropout Nation, in particular, detailed how Ferguson-Florissant School District, which serves the community in which Brown was murdered, has been a massive failure mill that metes out-of-school suspensions to one out of every seven black students in regular classrooms and 23 percent of black kids condemned to its special education ghettos.
The continuing battle over whether to allow kids trapped in nearby Normandy‘s traditional district to escape into better-performing districts has also gotten plenty of attention. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who has deservedly earned scorn for his handling of the Brown affair last year, garnered more ire last month when he vetoed a proposal contained in House Bill 42 that would provide intra-district choice to children in Normandy and other failing traditional systems. That move has led to another row between Nixon and his fellow Democrats who backed the measure, including the governor’s longtime nemesis, State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, whose district includes Normandy and Ferguson- Florissant.
Given all the scrutiny, the Ferguson Commission certainly had a lot of ground to cover to get it right. After all, the panel would be deemed a failure if it didn’t offer any concrete solutions. With 17 policymakers, activists, and community leaders (including Brittany Packnett of Teach For America) serving on the main commission and dozens more serving as experts and task force members, the final report could have also been a muddle of compromises worth nothing to everyone. But for the most part, the commission did its job properly and offered solutions worth implementing.
This isn’t to say that the final report doesn’t have flaws. The fact that the Ferguson Commission supported Gov. Nixon’s veto of H.B. 42 — even as it supports intra-district choice (more on that later) is puzzling and unfortunate. The panel’s partial embrace of the “Whole Child” rhetoric championed by traditionalists as a way to avoid overhauling the superclusters of failure, both in St. Louis and nationwide, that sustain their pockets and ideologies, means that it didn’t take on such matters as Missouri’s near-lifetime employment laws that keep low-quality teachers in classrooms of districts such as Ferguson-Florissant and Normandy.
Another major flaw is that the commission didn’t offer any recommendations on expanding high-quality charter schools, which are key to building brighter futures for St. Louis children. This is an especially egregious oversight, especially when you consider that Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes noted last year that children in special ed attending charter schools in the Gateway City (many of whom are black) gained as much as 86 days in math and reading performance over peers in traditional district schools.
Certainly there is plenty of room for improvement. Charters in St. Louis aren’t as high-performing improving reading as counterparts in 26 of the 41 other cities CREDO surveyed. As in Ohio, St. Louis has also proven that the concept of multiple charter school authorizers on its own hasn’t led to high-quality school operations; the ability of low-quality charter school operators to shop for favorable authorizers is a clear problem that must be addressed. But given that far too many kids in St. Louis area districts are stuck in failure mills, the Ferguson Commission should have devoted at least a couple of pages to both arguing for increasing the number of charters and overhauling how they are regulated.
Another flaw lies with the failure of the Ferguson Commission to recommend that Missouri legislators pass a Parent Trigger law that would allow families to take over and overhaul failing schools. Even if school choice fully flourishes in St. Louis and its suburbs, families will still want to have high-quality educational options in their own communities. Just as importantly, many of these families don’t just want to be passive players in education decision-making. They want to be able to structure the curricula, instruction, and school cultures in which their children will spend the most-critical times of their youth. As evidenced in Ferguson-Florissant, where the district’s board is hardly reflective of the black and brown kids who make up the majority of its students, the traditional district model does almost nothing to give families such power.
For the Ferguson Commission, arguing for passage of a Parent Trigger law would not only have been helpful to families, it would have also helped its own goals of transforming criminal justice and other systems that have done damage to St. Louis communities. This is because Parent Trigger laws help families understand that they can transform public education for their children. When mothers know they can build better schools for their kids, they will take on the other challenges outside of schoolhouse doors that also damage futures.
Those flaws aside, A Path Toward Racial Equality offers some important recommendations for transforming public education and criminal justice in St. Louis that can help children thrive into adulthood.
The Ferguson Commission’s call for districts in St. Louis to use restorative justice approaches to school discipline is not only sensible, it aligns with evidence that shows that such approaches do more to improve school cultures and help kids improve behavior than traditional harsh discipline approaches. There is no reason why districts in St. Louis and the rest of Missouri should be overusing suspensions and expulsions. Show-Me State legislators should pass a law restricting districts and other school operators from meting out suspensions to children in kindergarten-through-third grade, as the panel recommends. They should also pass a law that meets the panel’s recommendation of developing a more-comprehensive system for tracking data on suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to juvenile courts.
The creation of early-warning systems that track how children are falling off the path to high school graduation and higher ed completion is also an important recommendation. As Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz has noted, 43 percent of children on the path to dropping out of school can be identified before reaching sixth grade. Missouri state officials, along with school operators in St. Louis, should have long ago come together to develop such systems. More importantly, thanks to existing tools such as the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (or DIBELS) test, which can be used to identify struggling readers before they reach first grade, this can be don.
Meanwhile the commission’s deserves credit for its forceful call for the state to implement intra-district choice, even though it unfortunately called for Nixon to veto H.B. 42, the best path currently available. Even more impressive is that the panel thought through the infrastructural issues that can make it difficult for families to exercise choice on behalf of their children. Calling for state officials to identify conveniently-located high-quality schools — and ease the transportation burden on families and children — makes plenty of sense. So does its call to restrict the excuses that districts can use to stop kids from transferring into their schools. The commission’s report should spur Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature to override Nixon’s veto of H.B. 42. As for the governor? The report should also embarrass him for being so willing to sacrifice the futures of children.
Again, the Ferguson Commission’s report isn’t perfect. Reformers in St. Louis and the rest of the Show-Me State should follow up on the panel’s recommendations with solutions that are more fleshed-out than the body, primarily focused on addressing criminal justice and law enforcement, could make on it own.
At the same time, the Ferguson Commission’s report shows another approach reformers can take to transforming American public education in every municipality and region: Addressing the issues outside schools that are affected by what happens within them.
From the fact that schools account for the second-highest number of referrals to juvenile courts, to the failure of districts to provide all children with the college-preparatory learning they need to be economically and socially successful, schools are the gateways into failure for so many children on their way into adulthood. By teaming up with criminal justice reformers, Black Lives Matter activists, and others, reformers can advance solutions that can improve the conditions in which our children and their families live, learn, and work.
At the same time, by working on the ground with communities, listening to their concerns, and addressing their school and non-school issues reformers can also build the trust and gain the buy-in needed to sustain the overhaul of public education in communities. As your editor notes in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, education is as much a part of politics as criminal justice systems, so reformers must master coalition-building. Given how reformers have been beaten in Newark, and the rancor that remains over the transformation of New Orleans’ public education system, the movement should be more-active in combining the best ideas from within it with the solutions from the communities we are helping.
There’s a lot that reformers can learn from the Ferguson Commission report and its approach to addressing St. Louis’ criminal justice and educational crises. The movement should pick up a copy of the report and come up with some new approaches today.