By Lt. Gov. Peter D. Kinder
In November 2001, as president pro tem of the Senate, I convened a panel of senators for hearings in St. Louis and Kansas City on what needed to be done to fix those cities’ dysfunctional public schools. Several dozen witnesses, most of them African-American, testified for more than seven hours at the two hearings.
They told our bipartisan panel they needed more choices of where to send their children. The existing system wasn’t serving them well, they said. They wanted and needed the opportunities offered by public charter schools. One size doesn’t fit all. They wanted vouchers. They wanted a multiplicity of alternatives to the failing urban schools in which their children were trapped.
Now, 15 years later, charter schools have become a ray of light for many of the parents mired in the same circumstances. I personally secured charters for some of these new charter schools, including the Lift for Life Academy in St. Louis, the city’s oldest charter school.
St. Louis public schools continue to underperform, having been provisionally accredited since 2007, but a growing number of charter schools are slowly raising graduation rates and educational outcomes for St. Louis children. Last January, the Post-Dispatch featured an article on the growth and success of the city’s charter schools under the headline “Boom time for St. Louis charter schools” (Jan. 27, 2015).
But a federal court motion filed earlier this month could strike a crushing blow to the city’s 35 charter schools and their 11,000 students.
At issue is a desegregation settlement agreement reached in 1998 between the Legislature, the City of St. Louis, and St. Louis Public Schools.
The agreement followed passage of a school reform bill I zealously championed in the Senate. Although the final version stripped many key reforms for which I had argued, it was an important first step to providing alternatives for St. Louis and Kansas City parents. The new law established public charter schools in those cities.
The desegregation agreement that followed also established a sales tax to help fund the plan.
On April 11, the St. Louis school district filed a lawsuit claiming the state has overpaid the charter schools in St. Louis and asserting that all the desegregation tax revenue should pour into the St. Louis Public School District. If the school district prevails, the state could demand charter schools repay the estimated $50 million in tax revenue, financially devastating those schools.
Incredibly, the legal action occurred less than a week after St. Louis voters approved a tax levy increase – a proposal supported by the city’s charter schools – that will bring in an additional $28 million annually to the district.
School district officials are insatiable. They presume that tax revenue belongs to them. It doesn’t. It belongs to the students within the City of St. Louis, including those who attend charter schools.
St. Louis already has seen tens of thousands of families move out of the city. One reason for their exodus is parents’ attempt to give their children better educational opportunities. The loss of charter schools will exacerbate that flight.
We must realize that trapping children in a one-size-fits-all urban school system is a recipe for disaster. The district’s answer is the same as every failed liberal scheme of the past 50 years: Give us more money.
But the district already is receiving all the additional funding mandated by the desegregation settlement, although the district’s enrollment is considerably smaller now than when it was reached. In fact, St. Louis public schools receive more money per pupil than all but two school districts in the region, and the property tax levy increase just approved by St. Louis voters will add even more to the district’s coffers.
Yet they want more.
The St. Louis School District does not have a revenue problem. It has a spending problem. And now they expect charter schools and St. Louis’ most vulnerable students to pay the bill. That’s wrong.
This lawsuit is an attack on school choice and an effort to re-establish the St. Louis Public School District’s monopoly on K-12 education. That monopoly already failed St. Louis students and their parents. Charter schools often are the only beacon of hope for a better tomorrow to these families. Let’s not extinguish that hope. St. Louis Public School District, drop this lawsuit.