Chartering a Course Through Murky Waters

Charter-school proponents are paddling as fast as they can; plus, other St. Louis follies and foibles

The caustic curmudgeon H.L. Mencken spewed his invective in newspapers from the turn of the century into the 1940s, thundering and fulminating about a wide range of issues along the way. On education, for example, he wrote in 1928 that school days are "the unhappiest in the whole of span of human existence. They are full of dull, unintelligible tasks, new and unpleasant ordinances, brutal violations of common sense and common decency." Mencken moaned that students were subject to the "inexorable decrees of a soulless and irrational state." No, Mencken wasn't talking about Missouri -- or school boards, standardized testing or charter schools. But he might as well have been.

Charter schools, for good or for ill, will be a reality in St. Louis by the start of the fall semester. Four, maybe five, charter schools will be open if things go as planned, which they seldom have. After the Missouri General Assembly included charter schools in the school-desegregation settlement last year, the first charter school approved was the African-American Rite of Passage Institute. But after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the school's organizer, Lamar Beyah, was a felon and had served time in prison, the school's management consultant bailed out and the city school board sued to nullify the bill that had made charter schools possible. The school board lost the lawsuit, but the damage was done -- institute organizers said they had trouble raising money while the suit was pending. And on Friday, as expected, the University of Missouri-St. Louis revoked its sponsorship of the institute.

Despite the setbacks, Beyah pledges that the school will still open in September, saying he plans to appeal the university's decision and to apply separately for sponsorship from Harris-Stowe State College. Beyah draws inspiration from Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who has refused to answer questions about whether he used drugs in his youth, saying those questions are off-limits. "I'm sure everybody in the United States is aware now that George Bush told the media, don't question him anymore about his past activities," Beyah says. "I totally agree with him in that area. How many times do you pay for the same thing? It's been 16 years since I've committed any crime. It's been 16 years since I've been involved in any illegal activity."

On apparently less troubled ground is the St. Louis Charter School, which will be located near Kingshighway and Arsenal Street; the Thurgood Marshall Academy, 4300 Goodfellow Blvd.; the Ethel Hedgemen Lyle Academy; and a charter school at the Lift for Life Gym, 1415 Cass Ave. In all, more than 1,000 city students could be attending charter schools by September. A charter school must be open to all applicants and cannot charge tuition, because it draws its funds from the city school district on the basis of what the district spends per student. If more students apply than there are seats, a lottery is conducted. The state bill that set up charter schools allows them only in the city of St. Louis and Kansas City. A bill to modify last year's legislation appears to be going nowhere in Jefferson City.

"It's much worse than doing nothing," says state Sen. Peter D. Kinder (R-Cape Girardeau) of the bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Ted House (D-St. Charles). "It would impose a cap on charter schools. We don't want to impose a cap on throwing lifelines to drowning people," says Kinder, referring to students who want to have an alternative to some of the city's troubled schools. The bill is back on the informal calendar, but Kinder says many legislators "want to kill the bill."

The bill may well die, because opponents of charter schools, who include Sen. Mary Bland (D-Kansas City), and proponents, such as Kinder, dislike it for different reasons. During Bland's comments against the bill on the Senate floor, Kinder asked her whether she didn't have four grandchildren already signed up for charter schools in Kansas City. Turned out it was only three.

David Scott, a St. Louis lawyer behind St. Louis Charter School Inc., thinks the bill will be larded with so many proposals that it won't pass. "It probably will be the only education bill that will come out of the Senate this year, which means everyone will be tacking all of their education stuff onto it. That means it'll be an aircraft carrier at the end with everything you can put on it," Scott says. "I bet it doesn't get through."

IT MIGHT BE, IT COULD BE, IT IS -- A NEW STADIUM: Dress it up however they like, the stadium bill baked to specifications for owners of the St. Louis Cardinals involves more than just diverting state sales-tax dollars back to the team. House Bill 1357 would also allow a local "sports authority" to issue bonds to help finance the new stadium. If the state signs off on the diversion of sales-tax dollars, the city probably won't be far behind in agreeing to let its portion of the sales tax, and maybe all of its amusement tax, be siphoned off to pay for the new stadium. The likely sales pitch will be that the renovation of the nearby Cupples warehouses, yielding more residential development than originally announced, will serve as additional justification for the new, albeit retro, stadium. Of course, unlike the Los Angeles Rams back in 1994, the Cardinals are already here and have stated publicly that they have no plans to move from the St. Louis area, so the idea of getting a new venue entirely financed by tax dollars is a stretch. Chances are, the local baseball cartel will put some money in the pot. But most of the money on the table will come from the sale of bonds and the diversion of tax dollars that would have otherwise been paid to the city and the state. Details about who will guarantee the bonds should something go awry and just how many governmental bodies other than the Legislature must sprinkle holy water on this deal to make it legal are unclear at this time. Could there be a referendum? There never was one on what turned out to be the Trans World Dome. The session ends in May. Keep alert for sleight-of-hand.

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