St. Louis evening skyline

Dave Herholz / Creative Commons 2.0

Susan Pendergrass

It’s a problem that plagues many U.S. cities: How can we make sure that all families have access to a high-quality school? Charter schools can be a good starting point, since they can be strategically placed in neighborhoods where parents don’t have other good options. It’s unlikely that a city will convert all of its schools to charter schools (with the exception of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans), but several cities have found a middle path. In these cities, neighborhood public schools are contracted to charter school networks or other nonprofits. While the schools are given significant autonomy, they are still overseen by the local public school district.

Indianapolis has been a standout in creating a vibrant network of schools from which parents can choose. In addition to dozens of charter schools and the Indiana Choice Scholarship voucher program, Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) has been sponsoring Innovation Network Schools. These schools have been achieving large yearly gains in standardized test scores, for which IPS gets the credit. And parents get the benefit of a collaborative, choice-rich environment that prioritizes student needs over turf battles. Not surprisingly, Indy’s metro population has been growing by over five percent per year since 2010.

The news out of St. Louis is much less positive. Fodor’s added it to their “do not travel” list this year and the NAACP has issued a travel advisory to warn people against driving through the city. And, just last week, new census numbers revealed that St. Louis’ population—both in the city and the county—continues to decline, with the region having now dropped out of the top 20 largest metropolitan areas.

It’s hard to imagine that St. Louis is going to be able to turn this around and start growing again unless it focuses on getting the basics right: keeping people safe, providing quality schools, and not taxing people to exhaustion. It’s time to stop defending a failing status quo.

In 2017, just 31 percent of St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) 8th graders were Proficient in English/Language Arts and just 9 percent were Proficient in Math. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) considers St. Louis Public Schools to be “fully accredited”; however, when only one out of ten students starts high school knowing how to do math at grade level, it’s going to be tough to turn out students who are college- or career-ready. And sure enough, the average ACT score in 2017 was 17.0, with 87 percent of those who took the exam scoring below the national average.

Fortunately, some St. Louis parents have access to public charter schools, many of which dramatically outperform the school district. But the district and the charter schools are often at odds. In fact, the district, along with the NAACP, is suing the charter schools over a desegregation sales tax the SLPS claims should not have been shared with the charter schools. If SLPS wins, most of the charter schools are likely to be bankrupted. Rather than trying to expand options for parents, the SLPS lawsuit could end up limiting them.

Too often in Missouri, it seems that giving parents options like charter schools is seen as a threat rather than a useful tool. Maybe that’s one reason the city is losing residents, as some parents vote with their feet and move elsewhere.

About the Author

Susan Pendergrass
Director of Research and Education Policy

Susan Pendergrass was Vice President of Research and Evaluation for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools before joining the Show-Me Institute. Prior to coming to the National Alliance, Susan was a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education during the Bush administration and a senior research scientist at the National Center for Education Statistics during the Obama administration. She earned a Ph.D. in Public Policy from George Mason University.