If you follow the key players in the Saint Louis Charter School community on social media, you’ve probably seen the hashtag #dropthesuit recently. It refers to a recent action by the Saint Louis Public Schools, who are suing to get $42 million they believe was given erroneously to charter schools as part of the city’s desegregation plan. Depending on the outcome, this case could financially cripple the city’s charter schools and jeopardize the education of the more than 10,000 students who attend them.
It is vitally important that our community know the facts of the case, because there’s more here than meets the eye.
Beginning at the beginning
Courts first heard the issue of school segregation in St. Louis in 1972. That year, Minnie Liddell, a parent in the Saint Louis Public Schools, and a group of 4 other parents filed a complaint in U.S. District Court arguing that the policies of the school district and the State of Missouri were promoting segregation in Saint Louis. The case was complicated and difficult, because segregation in the region involved much more than just school policy. Housing policy, history, and the free choices of individuals all contributed to the problem.
In 1983, after several iterations of the original lawsuit (you can see the whole timeline here), and under the gun of a court-mandated consolidation of the city and county school districts, the St. Louis Public Schools entered into a voluntary transfer program with the 23 districts in St. Louis County. At the same time, investments were made to create magnet schools, offer kindergarten, and make other improvements within St. Louis. The hope was that the magnets would bring white students in from the county, and black students who attended overwhelmingly black schools would be free to go to schools in the county.
While the program satisfied the demands of the courts, the crux of the plan was its cost. Because the courts found the state at fault for the segregated conditions of schools, the state initially had to pay the lion’s share of the program. By the mid to late-1990s, the state argued that it had done what was asked of it and should therefore be released from its obligation to pay for the desegregation efforts. The compromise that resulted is central to today’s lawsuit.
In 1999, voters in St. Louis City agreed to a dedicated two-thirds-cent sales tax to fund the desegregation program. The voluntary transfer program became a standalone entity, financed by this new tax, and still exists today. According to its website, this year about 4,500 students will transfer out of the city and into the county and 140 students will transfer from the county into city schools (charter and district). The rest of the money went to provide quality options within the city, both to attract white students and to provide minority students who remained as good an education as possible.
Starting in 2006, when charter schools became their own local education agencies, a portion of those funds started being sent to them directly (previously, the money had to funnel through the district). And therein lies the rub. The district thinks that only it should receive the money. The state says charters, which operate within the boundaries of the district as open-enrollment public schools, should get it as well. As the Post-Dispatch reports, the St. Louis Public Schools want the $42 million charters have received returned to them, and want the $8.8 million that is supposed to go to charter schools this school year to be remitted to the school district as well.
Should charter schools receive desegregation funds?
The purpose of the various desegregation lawsuits in St. Louis is clear. First, they were intended to provide an opportunity for black students to get out of the segregated schools in St. Louis City. Second, they wanted to promote schools that would attract white students from the suburbs to help integrate the schools. Finally, they worked to create quality school options for all students, regardless of race, in St. Louis.
With respect to interdistrict transfers, charters have little bearing on the first goal of these lawsuits. Most charter schools participate in the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation (VICC), but because such a small number of county students want to go into the city, they play a small role in it. Charter schools do not adversely affect the students who want to leave.
Charter Schools do affect the second goal. As my colleague James Shuls pointed out last week, charter schools attract white students to the school district. In fact, they have been singularly responsible for increasing white enrollment, helping integrate the schools.
Charter schools affect the third goal as well, by providing quality education options for students within St. Louis. According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, City Garden Montessori, Northside Community School, and the St. Louis Language Immersion schools all earned at least 90% of the possible points in the state’s Annual Performance Rating. That places them in the top echelon of schools in the state and well exceeds the citywide average 76.1%. The three St. Louis Language Immersion Schools provide instruction in French, Spanish, and Chinese. These are the very types of diverse, quality options the desegregation money was levied to provide.
Now, I imagine there are numerous legal technicalities buried in the various motions related to this case, but the plain Jane, average-citizen understanding of the issues couldn’t be clearer. Charter schools help the city’s desegregation efforts. If those dollars are being levied to aid in desegregation, charter schools should have access to them.
What’s up with the timing? Didn’t charter folks just come out for the District’s property tax increase?
Why, yes. Yes they did. And that is what makes this very interesting.
If there is some kind of violation here, it has been happening since 2006. According to the Post-Dispatch article, concerns were first raised in 2008. Why is the lawsuit being filed now?
Well, on April 5 (a Tuesday) the district won its first property tax levy in 25 years. Charter school supporters backed the increase, as they are slated to get about a third of the money that it raises (because charters educate about a third of St. Louis’ public school students). The following Monday, April 11, the District filed the lawsuit. Was it just happenstance that the lawsuit wasn’t filed until after the property tax levy vote?
What will the impact of this lawsuit be?
This is the $42 million question. On one level, the increased revenue from the property tax vote is slated to provide about the same amount of money to charter schools on an annual basis that they would lose should they lose the lawsuit. If they lose, the best case scenario for charter schools would be for the state to pay the $42 million. While the district would be able to have its cake and eat it too (with both a property tax increase and a huge windfall of desegregation money) the charter schools would be in about the same financial position as they are today. That position is tenuous, however, as charter schools are funded at a level significantly below that of traditional public schools.
There is also a second, much more troubling scenario. Under the wording of the lawsuit, the plaintiffs are asking the state for the money that was allegedly improperly paid to charter schools. According to the Missouri Charter Public School Alliance, though, the State of Missouri could require schools to pay back the money the state gave them. I am not one for hyperbole, but this could very well end charter schooling in St. Louis. None of the schools has the money to pay back 10 years’ worth of desegregation payments.
Either way, losing this funding stream would harm charter schools and limit the kinds of programming they would be able to offer to students in Saint Louis.
Summing it all up
This lawsuit would hurt charter schools in Saint Louis, many of which are getting great results and providing a high-quality education for city children of all races. The average citizen may see the Saint Louis Public Schools attempting to claim money they believe they are entitled to, but to a more cynical observer this might look like an attempt to stifle competition at the expense of students. Providing a quality education in Saint Louis is the expressed purpose of the two-thirds-cent sales tax, and so long as charter schools are playing their part, they should have the city’s support. This suit is misguided, and my only hope is that when it is heard, the judge dismisses it on the spot.