Elementary school classroom
James V. Shuls

Saint Louis Public School district (SLPS) made news this week when it announced that it was suing the Missouri Board of Education for $42 million in desegregation sales tax money. Officials in the district believe this money was improperly given to public charter schools in Saint Louis. The district contends desegregation money is exclusively for the district and should not follow the student to the school of their choice.

Some history is important here.  The District was first sued for maintaining an illegally segregated school district in 1972. An initial settlement to that case was reached in 1983 and created a voluntary inter-district transfer program that allowed African-American students in the district to transfer to districts in the county and white students from the county to transfer into the city if they so chose. Desegregation efforts in the district were largely supported by state aid. This changed in 1999, when a desegregation sales tax was passed to replace state funding.  SLPS is suing over these tax dollars.

I am not a lawyer, so I cannot evaluate the claims made by SLPS officials.  I can, however, examine what has happened in terms of integration. Have charter schools helped or hurt efforts to desegregate public schools St. Louis?

In 1991, 20.9 percent of all students in Saint Louis public schools were non-minority. That percentage has decreased steadily. In 1999, when the sales tax was passed, the first charter schools opened in Saint Louis. Charter schools are public schools and are financed by public dollars, but they are not operated by the district. In 2008, charter schools became their own local education agencies (LEAs). In essence, they became something like their own school districts at this point, though they are all located within the boundaries of the St. Louis Public School District and are open and free to all students in St. Louis.

Below, I highlight the percentage of non-minority students in Saint Louis public schools. The green line shows the percentage in all Saint Louis public schools, including public charter schools. The percentage was in decline for about 20 years, but has recently taken an upturn.   This upturn was caused by an increase in non-minority students in public charter schools.

Some might suggest that public charter schools are pulling white students away from the district because the district has continued to lose white students. The available data tracks district or school enrollment as a whole; without data on the individual student level, I cannot answer that question conclusively. We can see, however, that the large increase of non-minority students in charter schools far outpaces the decline of white students in the district post 2008. In other words, charter schools seem to be attracting white students who were not previously enrolled in the district.

The data here may not be able to answer the legal question regarding the desegregation sales tax, but they do suggest charter schools are actually helping, not hurting efforts to integrate public schools in the city of Saint Louis.


About the Author

James Shuls
James Shuls
Distinguished Fellow of Education Policy

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.