St. Louis Public Schools: A Microcosm of the Destruction of Big City Public Education in America

Jeff Bryant’s history (published in Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column) of public schooling in St. Louis—including desegregation and the recent decades of corporate school reform—is a fascinating reminder that recent decades of anti-public, pro-corporate school reform doctrine was a much broader phenomenon than Bloomberg’s small school/charter experiment in New York City or the work of Betsy and Dick DeVos and their friends in Detroit. Although the local details differ, Bryant’s tale of St. Louis is also the story of Cleveland and Milwaukee and Philadelphia. While today we have been indoctrinated by proponents of a test-driven, high stakes testing regime to regard education in our poorest, most segregated big cities as “failing,” these school districts historically modeled society’s commitment to provide children with the best kind of education. Then racism and white flight intensified racial and economic segregation. Ideologues prescribed experimentation with privatization as the cure, but it hasn’t worked.

Well into his report, Bryant describes the years when I first became aware of something awry in St. Louis.  Suddenly in 2003, Alvarez & Marsal, a corporate “turnaround” firm was hired to run the school district. William Roberti, formerly the CEO of Brooks Brothers, was made acting superintendent.  Alvarez & Marsal set about closing public schools and expanding charters. Here is Bryant: “None of these outsiders had any education expertise… Roberti and his associates were intent on outsourcing school services and attacking ‘cost centers’ in the district.  Roberti outsourced the district’s school lunch program, computer education program, and building maintenance to private firms. He cut funds to the district’s special education services, curriculum development staff, teacher professional development programs, school counselors and social workers, and the district’s school buildings oversight… By 2004, at the end of Roberti’s temporary tenure, St. Louis had closed 21 schools and laid off over 1,000 employees.” And “financial problems the turnover artists never truly solved became the primary excuse for the state to take over the district in 2007, install an appointed school board, and strip the district of its accreditation.”

Bryant begins his story in 1897 with the district’s employing architect William Ittner to design and oversee the construction of new schools. Each had “a broad green lawn across the front, an impressive brick facade, and high arching windows to light the interior…The open plan used E-, U-, or H-shaped floor layouts and flanks of windows to allow sunlight to fill common areas and classrooms.  The designs emphasized large, open classrooms where teachers had more flexibility to arrange learning activities.  Students moved through sunlit hallways from classrooms to libraries and specialty rooms for art and music… Ittner designed 50 schools in St. Louis—48 are still standing….”  Many are now abandoned and in ruins.

But, Bryant reports, race has been an issue in the city, and the fate of the public schools today was cemented after WWII, with rampant white flight to 80 suburbs in the 1950s—90 suburbs today.  Bryant cites Richard Rothstein’s work, drawing “a direct line from residential housing policies made by the federal government to the isolation of low-income black children in American cities, including St. Louis…. By segregating housing and education, St. Louis’s civic leadership doomed many of the district’s schools to chronic low academic performance, Rothstein argues. Schools with high proportions of disadvantaged children, he writes, often have fewer and less-experienced teachers, higher concentrations of students whose learning is often impeded by the stress of poverty….”

Like other midwestern cities, St. Louis also experienced economic decline: “St. Louis went from hosting 23 Fortune 500 headquarters in 1980 to just nine in 2015.  While deregulation hollowed out St. Louis’s economy, Missouri state lawmakers attacked the city’s school funding… A recent analysis by EdBuild found that St. Louis schools have a cost-adjusted revenue per student that is 9 percent below Missouri’s average. The district gets only 35 percent of its revenue from the state.”

Then came the school reformers: “While racism, economic upheaval, and underfunding took their toll, the next wave to hit St. Louis schools was arguably even more destructive.” Missouri charter school legislation passed in 1998; the first St. Louis charter opened in 2000; in 2003, Alvarez & Marsal brought their corporate belt-tightening and school closures; charter growth boomed between 2008-2013;  and today 30 percent of St. Louis students attend publicly funded, privately operated charter schools.  As in many places, expansion of charters has hurt the public schools, in the case of St. Louis, because of a provision of Missouri school finance law: “When the state allots money to charters…. the state reduces the host district’s aid by the same amount, so a district like St. Louis, which funds its schools mostly by local property taxes, loses that revenue as well as their state aid.”

The St. Louis Public Schools have recently made positive accomplishments despite these enormous challenges. In 2014, after the district raised its graduation rate to 72 percent, posted 95 percent attendance, raised test scores, and  got its finances in order with a surplus, the St. Louis Public Schools regained accreditation.  In 2012 St. Louis schools added Pre-K for all and staffed the program with certified early-childhood educators.  There is now some talk of restoring an elected school board.

Bryant concludes: “Today’s education theorists may regard Ittner’s vision of schools as special places for learning and as icons of community identity and pride as a relic. But the lesson from St. Louis is that the promise of a neighborhood school for every child,  that would uphold great education and serve as an anchor of community identity, did not fail us.  We failed it.”

Please read Jeff Bryant’s excellent history of public education in St. Louis.  As a depiction of the forces that have, during our lifetimes, undermined the vision for public education across America’s big cities, Bryant’s report is much more than a local story.

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Ras Baraka Wins in Newark: Victory for Baraka, Democracy, and Public Education

What happened in Newark, NJ yesterday should matter to you no matter where you live in America.  It is the story of the triumph of participatory democracy over a system flooded with money.  And if you care about the future of public education, you will be especially interested, because the fate of Newark’s public schools became the central issue in this campaign.  The winner, Ras Baraka, a high school principal, confronted the wave of  “corporate” school reform and privatization that has become Newark’s (bipartisan) status quo under  former Democratic Mayor Cory Booker and Republican Governor Chris Christie and his state appointed Newark school overseers.

According to Bob Braun, blogger and former 50 year reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger, “Ras Baraka, a high school principal and the son of a poet, yesterday easily defeated a Wall Street-backed promoter of school privatization to become the next mayor of Newark.  Baraka’s victory repudiated the policies not just of his rival, Shavar Jeffries, but those of Gov. Chris Christie, former Mayor Cory Booker, and state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson, who is trying to close neighborhood public schools and replace them with privately run charter schools.” Braun continues: “Wall Street financiers and hedge-fund managers—strong supporters of former Mayor Cory Booker—poured $3 million into the Jeffries campaign, including $300,000 in street money that went to young men and women in the city, many of whom apparently took the money and then urged voters to vote for Baraka.”

Mark Webber, who blogs under the name Jersey Jazzman, reflected last Sunday on the issues at stake in this race.  Here is a shortened and compressed version of his analysis: “Democracies allow for full participation in governance by all people, regardless of their class status; Newark, however, is currently being threatened with the loss of its autonomy simply because it is an impoverished community…  Democracies support the development of a middle-class; Newark, however suffers from segregation, taxation, and economic policies that all but guarantee that many of its citizens will remain mired in poverty…  Democracies allow citizens to direct the education of their children; Newark, however, allows its citizens no say in how its schools are run…  Democracies engage in elections where campaign financing is transparent and driven by the citizens affected by the elections; Newark, however, is engaged in a mayoral race dominated by shadowy interest groups outside the city…  Shavar Jeffries may well be a good man, but his campaign has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with our politics these days.  If Jeffries wins, it’s a confirmation that America’s cities—the ones where working-class people of color are allowed to live—are being ruled from the outside.  Jeffries’ election will confirm these cities’ institutions have been co-opted for cynical , self-serving interests, fully at the service of political machines and plutocrats.”

But Shavar Jeffries and the corporate investors from Education Reform Now lost this election.  Ras Baraka won.

Bob Braun reports that Education Reform Now, which donated heavily to the Jeffries campaign, is not required to list its specific donations, because it is supposedly a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.  Here, according to Braun, however, from its website is the list of board members of Education Reform Now: Charles H. Ledley, Board chair and an analyst at Highfields Capital Management; John Petrey founder and managing principal at Sessa Capital, formerly at Gotham Capital and Gotham Asset Management and co-founder of Democrats for Education Reform and chair of Success Academy Charter Schools in NYC; Sidney Hawkins Gargiulo, a partner at Covey Capital and big supporter of NewSchools Venture Fund, and Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies in NYC; Brien Ziet of Charter Bridge Capital; John Sabat of Cubist Systematic Strategies; and Michael Sabat of Sanford C. Bernstein.  Braun adds that Education Reform Now, “is a charitable organization—it solicits tax-exempt donations and is not supposed to engage in electoral politics.”

That this election was primarily a referendum on the One Newark school privatization plan of Christie’s appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson, is clear in this youtube version of a TV ad paid for on Baraka’s behalf by the Working Families Alliance.  If you watch it, you will hear Governor Christie twice declare: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark—not them.”

In fact, Cami Anderson’s  One Newark school closure and privatization plan became so contentious that Jeffries was forced to distance himself from Cami Anderson.  According to Bob Braun, “Jeffries, a close associate of Anderson, finally did repudiate her plan but it was too late in the race.”

Anderson has refused to attend school board meetings for two months now and has spent recent weeks at national conferences outside Newark. There are rumors that she may be forced out.  It is known that the implementation of One Newark is in disarray.  The school district has repeatedly delayed announcing the school choice placements of children to their schools for next fall and has struggled to put together a workable transportation plan for a district that has until now relied on neighborhood schools.  Many parents have sought to keep their children in neighborhood schools and have refused to fill out school choice applications.  This blog has covered the school controversy in Newark herehere, herehere, and here.

Given the fiscal climate for poor cities and the power of money in politics these days, Ras Baraka will face enormous challenges.  But this morning we must celebrate the people of Newark, who voted to elect Ras Baraka and to protect their democracy and their public schools.