As St. Louis' School Desegregation Program Winds Down, No One Can Say What Comes Next

Ariel Gibson, with father Leon Gibson and grandmother Cynthia Wren, is one of the 2,488 students who applied to VICC last year.
Ariel Gibson, with father Leon Gibson and grandmother Cynthia Wren, is one of the 2,488 students who applied to VICC last year. MONICA MILEUR

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Michael Liddell’s family launched the class-action suit that led to VICC’s creation. Today his kids attend magnet schools. - LEXIE MILLER
Michael Liddell’s family launched the class-action suit that led to VICC’s creation. Today his kids attend magnet schools.

While the VICC program was never meant to last forever, it's still lasted longer than its creators anticipated.

In 1972, a group of five black St. Louis families filed a class-action lawsuit, Liddell v. Board of Education of City of St. Louis. They argued that SLPS was intentionally making its schools more segregated and giving its minority students fewer resources than its predominantly white schools.

Three years later, U.S. District Judge James Meredith, who heard the case, was ready to approve a settlement crafted by the parties' attorneys. The plan aimed to increase the number of teachers of color at SLPS and redraw zoning maps to make schools more racially diverse. The settlement also included the addition of magnet schools in SLPS to attract white and black students.

But the settlement wasn't enough for the NAACP. The organization intervened in the case in 1976 and was eventually granted standing by the appeals court, along with the Missouri State Board of Education and the Missouri Commissioner of Education.

In 1980, the appellate justices suggested a transfer program between city and county schools. One year later, U.S. District Judge William Hungate, who'd taken over the case, oversaw the beginning of a pilot transfer program between six school districts. After Hungate threatened to order a merger of county and city school districts if county schools didn't step up to the plate, a much higher number of country districts signed on. By 1983, all 23 districts in St. Louis County and city had joined VICC — and by that September, city kids chosen by lottery began their education in county districts.

Fifteen years later, a remodel of the program included a ten-year phase-out, with a 5 percent decrease each year. In 2007, though, VICC voted to extend the program for another five years. The board made that same decision again in 2012.

In 2016, the board voted to extend the program for what it claims will be the final time.

One reason cited by VICC for its phase-out is a fiercely fought U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1991, Board of Education of Oklahoma Public Schools v. Robert L. Dowell. In a 5-3 ruling, the justices ruled that race-based education programs cannot run into perpetuity.

Another reason to wind down, according to VICC, was Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's opinion for a 2003 affirmative-action case. O'Connor wrote, "We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest [in student body diversity] approved today."

David Glaser, VICC's CEO, says such language, and precedents like the Oklahoma case, suggest a need to wind down the transfer program.

"We have concerns about continuing VICC beyond this five-year extension," he says.

But Veronica Johnson, a civil rights attorney in St. Louis and counsel for the NAACP for nearly two decades, doesn't agree.

"I think it is a terrible shame that it has to come to an end," she says. "I don't necessarily agree with VICC that it has to come to an end. I understand why they think that, but I don't agree with it."

Needless to say, Johnson wants to see efforts continue to diversify schools in St. Louis. But she won't be using the Liddell case to that end, suggesting she sees the same writing on the wall as VICC. "We, as attorneys for the NAACP and the Liddells, are not going to be able to go back to court and get this program continued or restarted," she says.

Instead, Johnson hopes that educators, parents and students involved with VICC can create a groundswell of support for the continuation of some sort of transfer program, even if it cannot continue as a race-based one.

She says that as the current program nears its end, its purpose has been undeniable.

"The value of it has always been the idea of equal educational opportunity," she says. "Any child should have any opportunities as any other child, regardless of where they were born, their zip code, the color of their skin."

What's more, she says, is that the diversity created through the program impacts all students, regardless of race.

"That is an integral part of the educational process," she says.

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