Race and Education Inequality in St. Louis

By Eva Kappas

St. Louis, Missouri

"Education equality definitely relies on dismantling capitalism" (Photo Credit: STL Today)

At RISE STL, a youth-organized online event tackling education inequality within St. Louis, Ishmaiah Moore described her experience with ‘the question.’ A 2019 graduate from Hazelwood West, she wondered about the conclusions people may draw from her, solely based on her school name: 


“I think in the North County community, people think of it as the ‘fancy one.’ Then whenever I branch out to South County schools, or students who go to Ladue or a Parkway district, they kind of look down upon Hazelwood West; [they think] that it’s like the ‘ghetto school.’” 


“Where did you go to high school?”


In St. Louis, Missouri, we’ve all asked ‘the question,’ heard ‘the question,’ and named our school with a degree of humble pride, curiosity or even suspicion. But our feelings with ‘the question’ may be very different from someone who grew up just five miles north or south.


In a historically socially stratified city, no matter the response to ‘the question,’ religious, racial and socioeconomic associations flood our minds. Though we don’t like to admit it, this classic St. Louis question is popular because it provides context in which to see a new acquaintance, drawing what we think is a window into their life––but really just drawing them into a box. 


In St. Louis especially, the quality of education varies greatly among both public and private institutions. Although it is well understood today that price determines quality, education wasn’t always a commodity to be bought and sold, and the RISE summit attempted to explain the history of that shift.


In order to understand the origins of racially and economically segregated schools, we must go back to St. Louis in the 1900s. During the Great Migration, White residents of St. Louis were worried that the influx of Black residents would threaten their jobs and decrease their property value if low-income Black families moved into white neighborhoods. In 1916, St. Louisans had a referendum where they passed an ordinance that prevented anyone from buying a home in a neighborhood more than 75% occupied by another race. After that was made illegal by a Supreme Court decision the following year, some neighborhoods employed racial covenants, asking every family on a block to sign a legal document promising never to sell to a Black person. 


In the 1950s, when white families moved to the suburbs “white flight,” residents in many historically Black neighborhoods in the city were evicted in order to build highways and “urban renewal” projects. “We removed so-called slum neighborhoods...We have spent enormous sums of public money to spatially reinforce human segregation patterns. And it’s been very frightening to see the result.” said Michael Allen, director of the Preservation Research Office, to STL Magazine. 

STL Magazine relays that “Urban geographers describe St. Louis as a donut hole—empty in the middle and encircled by doughy counties.” 


On the Zoom screen of the RISE STL Virtual Training, a slide reads in all caps: “The funding of public schools by property taxes ensures economic segregation due to redlining.” 


Redlining, the policy of federal lenders to refuse loans to people living in and near Black neighborhoods on the premise that the loans were a “poor financial risk,” makes it nearly impossible to move out of low-income neighborhoods. Since school districts are funded by property taxes, richer areas with higher property taxes have more money and therefore resources for their school systems. 


“We know that segregation in schools ended in 1964, however I’m sure we can tell that segregation in schools hasn’t ended just by looking at the makeup of schools that [you all] went to,” Sunny Lu, a Ladue senior and speaker at RISE STL, explained. “This has a lot to do with discriminatory housing policies. If you live in an area that’s predominately white and predominantly wealthy, then that’s what your school is going to look like.”


And that’s not even taking private schools into consideration, which provide students with an advantage over public school students regarding access to resources, smaller class sizes and college counseling services. After Brown v. Board of Education, many white families that opposed integration pulled their children from the public school system. They enrolled in newly created “segregation academies,” private schools with fees that effectively made the school only accessible to rich white students. 


Lu said, “While not all private schools have explicitly racist or exclusionary foundations, the highest quality of public education simply cannot exist with rich parents being able to simply opt out of public education via private schools.” 


So does it all really come down to the decision of rich, overwhelmingly white parents who want to give their child the best possible education, even at the expense of educational and racial equality? 


Brianna Chandler, a RISE STL Organizer and student at Washington University in St. Louis, said, “Education equality definitely relies on dismantling capitalism and getting rid of private schools.” However, Chandler remains optimistic: “Education equality can be achieved within our lifetimes, it’s just going to take a lot of effort to get there and de-normalizing the idea that it’s okay for some people to receive a better education than others.” 

“Education equality can be achieved within our lifetimes" (Photo Credit: RISE STL)