A long-simmering feud between Gov. Jay Nixon and some black politicians, going back to his days as Missouri’s attorney general, flared up again in Jefferson City this week, fanned by the debate over school transfer legislation.
But not all African-American officials are taking sides against the governor. Some, especially in the state House, are urging Nixon to veto the student transfer bill, because they consider its changes in the transfer law harmful to black students.
As the wide-ranging bill headed toward final passage, two African-American members of the Senate – Democrats Jamilah Nasheed of St. Louis and Maria Chappelle-Nadal of University City -- told a news conference in the Capitol Wednesday that Nixon’s negative comments about the bill showed a callous attitude toward black students.
“If the governor vetoes this bill,” Chappelle-Nadal said, “it will be the second time he has turned his back on poor black children. The last time he did that is when he was the attorney general and he decided to end desegregation.”
As attorney general, Nixon worked to bring an end to the long-running voluntary city-county transfer program that is still in effect today. His opposition was based primarily on the cost of the busing.
The program has been scaled back as part of a federal court settlement reached in 1999, with the city schools receiving $180 million from the state. But black politicians who had worked in favor of the program have aimed at least part of their dissatisfaction at Nixon.
When he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1998 against incumbent Republican Christopher
“Kit” Bond, a number of high-profile African-American officeholders refused to support him or kept their backing to a minimum. They often used a chant of “No Way, Jay” to voice their displeasure.
Chappelle-Nadal recalled that campaign in the news conference this week, when she was asked by reporter Phill Brooks whether she thought Nixon is a racist.
She hesitated, then said, “Wow. That’s a good question.”
Then Chappelle-Nadal noted that when the governor was thinking about cuts in food stamps, which would affect blacks more than any group, as well as made statements on other bills that would have a similar impact, “I would tell you there are large numbers of minorities in the state that have been concerned.”
“I think you can only look at the actions to make an assessment on that,” she added. “I can tell you that when he lost the U.S. Senate race, way back when, it was the black community that came out against him.
“So you have to make that assessment of whether or not he’s racist. All I can look at is his behavior and his actions of the past. And I can tell you in some of his behaviors and actions, minorities have been grossly disappointed.”
Chappelle-Nadal noted that she was a deseg student, living in St. Louis and attending Clayton schools, and she wants students in underperforming school districts today to have a similar opportunity. She said she began working on changes to the transfer bill shortly after the law was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court last summer.
“I’d like to know where was the governor last summer?” she asked. “Where was his proposal? When did he meet with our caucus? When did he talk to the African-American senators or the St. Louis senators to talk about what his plans were? The truth of the matter is, the governor never had any plans.
“And for him to come about at the eleventh hour is not only a disgrace, but it also shows the lack of his leadership…. So if he wants to threaten to veto a bill, let him know not only is he turning his back on poor black children, but he’s turning his back on education in the state of Missouri.”
Asked for reaction to Chappelle-Nadal’s statements, Nixon spokesman Scott Holste told St. Louis Public Radio:
“I don’t see any need to comment on that.”
Nasheed clashed with the governor earlier this year over the issue of tax credits for low-income housing. Nasheed wound up resigning as chairman of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus after she appeared at a news conference with Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican.
At the time, reported Jo Mannies, some caucus members -- and Nixon -- were upset that Nasheed allowed Kinder, a Republican long at odds with the governor, to join her at a news conference blasting the governor over tax credits.
Racially charged debate
Debate over the student transfer bill, which the House sent to Nixon Thursday on a vote of 89-66, has been cast in racial terms largely because the two St. Louis County districts affected, Normandy and Riverview Gardens, have enrollments that are primarily black.
After lengthy debate in both chambers, the wide-ranging bill covered a number of topics, including charter schools, student retention, parent involvement and more. The one provision that has drawn opposition from Nixon would allow students to transfer from unaccredited schools to non-sectarian private schools, with their tuition coming only from locally raised tax funds, not state money.
At a news conference earlier this week, the governor stopped short of saying he would veto the bill if the private option remained in it, but he did urge lawmakers – unsuccessfully, it turned out – to remove that provision.
“Such a step, using public money for private schools, would destabilize the strong foundation on which public education has stood for generations, and open the floodgates to even more radical voucher schemes down the road,” Nixon said. “That’s where I must draw the line.”
Other black lawmakers agree with Nixon and have urged him to veto the bill because they say it is harmful to black students and does not provide the help that Normandy and Riverview Gardens need.
During debate Thursday, state Rep. Karla May, D-St. Louis, made a reference to “Tuskegee,” the infamous experiment where black men were unknowingly injected with syphilis.
Wednesday night, after the Senate passed the bill 28-3, state Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, who represents part of the Normandy school district, said in a statement:
“The legislature has again failed to fix the problem, and the affected school districts, both accredited and unaccredited, will continue to grapple with the consequences.
“Senate Bill 493 does nothing to help students in the Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts. Instead, the bill is a front for those whose ultimate goal is to privatize local public schools and end public education in Missouri as we know it.
“Shifting taxpayer money intended for public schools to private schools will not improve public education and should not be a part of this discussion. Lawmakers must focus on the issue at hand – fixing a broken student transfer law to provide financial certainty for affected school districts and a quality public education for all students.”
And state Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis, said in a statement that the bill does not fix problems with the transfer program but “perpetuates the status quo.”
But Chappelle-Nadal said that the private option is just one part of a bill that does a lot of good things for minority students in struggling districts.
“In 30 years,” she said, “different legislatures have not addressed the issue of districts that had become unaccredited, and therefore we had a collapse. What I call falling off the cliff. And that’s where Normandy is, that is where Riverview is. That may be where the school district in St. Louis may be in the future in a couple of years.”
She called the bill historic and said that Nixon should overlook his objections about one part and sign it.
“Are we all satisfied?” she asked. “Absolutely not. There are some things in this bill that I absolutely don’t like. There are things in this bill that rural Republicans will tell you they don’t like. The establishment will tell you there are things in this bill that they don’t like.
“Well I say to that, that’s a pretty good bill. If none of us are getting 100 percent of what we want, that means that we have worked in collaboration to balance out the needs that we have for all of the areas that we represent. That is representative of Missouri.”
Nasheed put it this way:
“This legislation will save the Normandy school district and the Riverview school district from complete collapse. Our governor can be stubborn at times, but on this bill, he should not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Demanding that Nixon sign the bill, she added:
“This education bill is without question the single most important piece of legislation to be addressed by the General Assembly this session, and perhaps the most important education legislation ever.”
Copyright 2014 KWMU-FM. To see more, visit http://www.stlpublicradio.org.