More Choice on the Horizon? Glimpsing the Future of St. Louis Public Schools
Last night I participated in a panel discussion (hosted by Metropolis St. Louis, FOCUS St. Louis, and the League of Women Voters) about the future of St. Louis Public Schools — my first official event as the Show-Me Institute’s new education policy analyst. The panel included Dr. John Martin (deputy superintendent of SLPS), Melanie Adams (member of the appointed Special Administrative Board overseeing SLPS), Evan Lewis (vice-president of Urban Prep Academy, an all-boys’ charter school in inner-city Chicago), State Senator Jeff Smith, and myself. Each of the panelists had a few minutes to make a statement about their vision for the future of public education in St. Louis before the floor was opened up to questions from the 40 people in attendance.
I would encapsulate the essential views of the participants as follows*:
Dr. Martin: SLPS has fallen on hard times because of rapid leadership turnover, and because it has to assume the responsibility of parenting kids who live in poverty and transience. The state government isn’t treating the system respectfully in this whole process. The best way to improve education in St. Louis is to seek our input before the administrative board takes any unusual action because there is a wealth of institutional wisdom within SLPS that can help right the ship if people will just keep administrators involved in the decision-making process. By the way, charter schools are dangerously unaccountable, and allowing financially disadvantaged families the opportunity to leave the public schools would be deadly for public education. Long live traditional public schools!
Ms. Adams: The system is broken, but we can fix it by introducing accountability and flexibility for the administrators. The administrative board hasn’t yet charted the path out of this mess, but we will work to move beyond the petty squabbling that has defined and degraded SLPS. Our focus will be doing what is best for the kids.
Mr. Lewis: Urban Prep Charter Academy demonstrates that educational success is attainable in impoverished urban areas. We have the flexibility to hire a staff and shape a curriculum that connects with young black men in unique ways. We set high expectations for our students and we take pride in knowing that, despite the fact that many of these students were not performing well in their traditional public schools, they almost always rise to the occasion with the proper support and encouragement. Even children in difficult circumstances are capable of academic achievement when schools are freed from bureaucratic constraints and allowed to pursue the best educational practices for each school’s particular setting and student body.
Sen. Smith: As an educator, I have seen both the good and bad aspects of SLPS, and I know that the system must be reformed in some way if it is to meet the needs of this city’s children. As a charter school administrator, I’ve seen the advantages that have resulted from the relative lack of constraints in seeking out the best educational practices. As a legislator, I’ve met almost absurd resistance from the teachers’ union when my education proposals would offer financial incentives to increase the number of quality teachers in Missouri classrooms. It’s time to set aside the interests in institutional turf and fiefdoms, and pursue any policy that will improve education for our children. Getting those children educated is a matter far more important than the sort of political, institutional, or personal concerns that have derailed reform in the past.
Mr. Roland: The key to resolving educational woes in St. Louis and elsewhere is to empower parents to seek out the best available education for their children. Almost without exception, parents are more invested in the success of their children than any bureaucrat will ever be, and therefore are more inclined to hold schools accountable for giving their children quality educations. A good school choice program will open the doors of opportunity for families who would otherwise never be able to send their children to schools that have the academic and disciplinary flexibility that is not available in traditional public schools.
Taken as a whole, I believe the evening resulted in a basic consensus that the reclamation of public education in St. Louis hinges on three central concepts: school accountability, educational flexibility, and the availability of some form of parental choice among schools. I won’t pretend that, despite my efforts, everyone was persuaded that we need full-blown school choice immediately. But my sense of the discussion was that most people recognize allowing even a restricted form of choice (open enrollment in traditional public schools, expansion of charter school options, etc.) would be an improvement over the status quo.
* Please note that these statements reflect my own impressions from listening to the other speakers, and should not be taken as direct quotes. The impressions of others present at the event may differ from my own.