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.