Seth Gershenson and Michael Hayes have recently published their research about the effects of the “civic unrest” in Ferguson on student achievement in the Ferguson-Florissant schools. They state that they are interested in the general subject as “educational success is likely to play a key role in breaking cycles of poverty and violence in disadvantaged neighborhoods, given the well documented association between educational attainment and earnings,” something about which we can all only agree.
Gershenson and Hayes document “the negative impact on student achievement of the many months of civic unrest that followed former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson’s shooting (or murder, as we call it here at Dropout Nation) of unarmed teenager Michael Brown:
We find statistically significant . . . declines in students’ math and reading achievement in Ferguson-area elementary schools relative to other schools in the St. Louis [area]. Smaller negative effects are found in majority-black schools elsewhere in the [area] . . . Effects are relatively large, particularly at the lower end of the math-score distribution. For example, a conservative estimate suggests that the fraction of high-needs students scoring “below basic” in math increased by about 10 percentage points following the unrest.”
The researchers have found that that there was collateral damage from the events in Ferguson following Brown’s slaying: The educations of Black children there and in the wider St. Louis area. As Dropout Nation documented two years ago, the districts in St. Louis were already serving up educational malpractice to black and other minority children before the unrest. Things haven’t gotten better since.
The racial make-up of the population of Ferguson has rapidly shifted over the past fifty years, from nearly all White to majority Black. At the time of the killing of Michael Brown, however, the police department and the rest of the so-called criminal justice system remained not only predominately White, but functioned, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (although not in so many words), as a parasitical instrument for the oppression of Black residents of the area, financed by funds extracted from them by means of traffic stops, court fees and such.
This criminalization of the Black population of Ferguson is not unusual in Missouri. All through the state Black residents are stopped by the police, searched, arrested, fined and imprisoned in circumstances in which White residents would not receive the same attention from the police and the rest of the criminal justice system.
The result is that although Blacks make up 12 percent of the population of Missouri, they account for 39 percent of those in the state’s prison and jails. The incarceration rate for Black residents of the state is 2,337 per 100,000, more than four times the incarceration rate of 495 per 100,000 for whites. Further, more than twice the number of those currently in jails and prisons in Missouri are on probation or parole, bring us to, say, six percent of the total Black population or, at a back of the envelope calculation, 15 percent of the male Black population between the ages of 18 and 65.
Every sixth or seventh adult Black man in Missouri is in one way or another under the control of the state’s criminal justice system and many more have been at one time or another. This limits their life prospects and those of their families, reducing their income possibilities below those consequent upon the already significant penalty for working while Black, which in turn channels them into inferior, segregated housing and their children into inferior, segregated schools. And around and around we go, generation after generation.
The median household income in Ferguson is $41,000; one-third of the Ferguson households live on less than $25,000 a year. The Ferguson-Florissant School District is ranked 301st in the state. It is 66 percent African-American. $11,300 is allocated for each student in the district, slightly below the national average. Seventy-one percent of the district’s students are eligible for Free or Reduced Price Lunch. Just 40 percent are considered by the state to be proficient in reading, and yet 78 percent graduate. However, only 23 percent of adults in Ferguson have college degrees. Based on other data Dropout Nation presented two years ago, it is clear that many (if not most) of Ferguson-Florissant’s graduates are being given diplomas despite being unprepared for college or career success.
It could be worse. It could be nearby East St. Louis.
The St. Louis metropolitan area is divided into two-dozen school districts in Missouri, with East St. Louis across the river in Illinois. East St. Louis is one of the most segregated areas of the country; 96 percent of the residents are African-American. It is also profoundly poor. While the median household income in the country is $53,000, in East St. Louis that figure is $20,000 and 60 percent of those households live on less than $25,000 a year. 99 percent of the district’s school children receive Free or Reduced Price Lunch. Only 20 percent are proficient in reading (and yet) the graduation rate is 65 percent, from which we can conclude that two out of three graduates of the East St. Louis schools cannot read well. It is, then, not surprising that just eight percent of East St. Louis adults are college-educated, compared to a national average of 29 percent.
East St. Louis is the baseline for living conditions and educational opportunities, for African Americans, in the St. Louis metropolitan area.
On the other hand, things could be better for Black families in the region if they could live in Maryland Heights.
Maryland Heights is a suburb on the other side of the city from East St. Louis. The median household income there is about $59,000, higher than the national average, and just 17 percent of households have incomes under $25,000, a proportion considerably under that national average. 40 percent of adults in Maryland Heights have college educations. The local school district (Parkway C-II) is 15 percent African-American. Just 20 percent of its students are eligible for Free or Reduced Price Lunch. $14,400 is spent on each student in the Parkway C-II district, almost a third more than in Ferguson. The Parkway C-II district brings 72 percent of its students to proficiency in reading on the state tests and graduates 93 percent of them.
East St. Louis and Maryland Heights are not very distant, one from the other, and quite similar except that in one the residents are almost all descendants of enslaved Africans, in the other the vast majority are not; in one the average household income is below the poverty line, in the other it is three times as much; in one the adults have little education, in the other the adults are highly educated; in one the schools do not in any meaningful sense function, in the other they produce high school students prepared, as the saying goes, for college and careers. Where once the Underground Railroad took Black people to freedom, schools like those in East St. Louis are a funnel leading to incarceration.
That is the regional context for Black families in Ferguson. Historians and sociologists have told us since the time of the French Revolution that the disappointment of rising expectations leads to a crisis. Although Black families in Ferguson were better off than those in East St. Louis, they had encountered the barrier of a criminal justice system determined to contain them and other institutions, such as the schools, that were failing them and their children. What followed was predictable in nature, simply not predictable in regard to place or time. And then it happened in Ferguson. And then it happened in Baltimore, Minneapolis, and earlier this week, in Milwaukee, the subject of so many reports on these pages.
Riots and police in armored vehicles frighten children, boys and girls who must already deal with the daily, oppressive, and often racially bigoted presence of law enforcement on streets and in schools. They become reluctant to leave their homes to go to school and their parents are reluctant for them to do so. Conditions in the schools themselves, hardly exemplary at the best of times, worsen. The resources needed to cope with this educational emergency, like those needed to cope with the more long-term lack of educational opportunities at the standard, of, say, Maryland Heights, fail to be provided.
We have grown used to this. This should never be the case. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.”