The Education Struggle in St. Louis Continues
The Post-Dispatch ran an editorial today rehashing the continuing problems facing St. Louis’s public school system. The Special Administrative Board appointed by the state when the school district lost its accreditation is facing an enormous budget deficit. The board’s answer (thus far) seems to be to closing some facilities, cutting back on bus routes, and eliminating support staff from the district’s schools. The author notes that while school officials are struggling to come up with a plan, “parents are voting with their feet” and heading to parochial, charter, or suburban public schools.
In the editorial, the author poses several questions: “If a centrally administered urban district full of troubled students, entrenched political interests and an aging infrastructure can’t be maintained, and if the district doesn’t improve its academic performance within three years, what is Plan B? […] What are the best and quickest options for creating a new system? Would a new model create genuine value or just make problems worse?”
In fact, I think the author has inadvertently answered his or her own question. As the column pointed out, parents are coming up with their own solutions by seeking out schools that are already prepared to meet the needs of their children, as opposed to waiting years for St. Louis’ public schools to come up with a fix for their woes. While the editorial author worries that this exodus away from the public schools “reduces the amount of money the state provides to the district for the expensive process of urban education,” three points ought to be understood regarding that concern:
- More than half of the funding for the St. Louis public schools (roughly $6,000 per student) comes from local tax revenues;
- When a student leaves the public schools, the schools retain all of the local funds that would have otherwise been used to educate that student;
- Thus, when parents choose to pull their children out of the public schools, the schools actually have more money per student to use in educating those that remain in the public school system.
Even though student departures will leave the public schools with more per-student funding, this alone is unlikely to improve the performance of the city’s schools. As we have pointed out elsewhere, increases to per-pupil spending make no difference in students’ academic achievement. As the parents moving their children out of the St. Louis public schools realize, real gains in education come when students are matched with schools and teachers that suit their academic needs.
So, the biggest problem is that many parents in St. Louis (and other failing school districts) can’t afford to send their children to the schools best suited to their educational needs. Fortunately, this is an issue that Missourians can do something about. For the past several years, the General Assembly has considered (but rejected) plans that would offer tax credits to individuals and corporations who donate to scholarship organizations established to help disadvantaged students attend the schools that fit them best. Such a plan would both increase the overall level of educational spending statewide and create educational freedom for families whose only option today is to attend the schools to which they are assigned by the local district’s bureaucrats.
An effective solution to the educational crisis is at our fingertips. All we have to do is grasp it.