Put Up or Shut Up

Candidates must speak clearly about troubled schools

Fixing public education in St. Louis is the local equivalent of achieving peace in the Middle East -- mayoral candidates yearn for it and tell voters they will strive for it, but every four years, the schools are still mired in trouble and the candidates dust off the same old bromides about solutions.

This year's election is no different. If only the candidates for mayor would put up or shut up about the city schools. They should either tell voters the school system is a dysfunctional mess and it needs to be taken over by someone with real authority -- maybe them, maybe somebody else -- or they should just shut the hell up about how education is of prime importance. They should be Ariel Sharon or Pontius Pilate.

Neither of those options is being taken. The three leading contenders -- Mayor Clarence Harmon, former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. and Aldermanic President Francis G. Slay -- all prattle on about focusing attention on schools, promoting mentoring and promising monthly meetings between the mayor and the district's superintendent. Great. More meetings will solve everything.

When it comes to public schools, Harmonious and St. Francis don't have much firsthand experience, and what the Boz learned recently wasn't pleasant. All of Harmonious' children are grown, and he attended McBride High, a North Side Catholic school that closed in 1971.

Slay attended Catholic schools and graduated from St. Mary's, another archdiocesan high school. Slay sends his children to Catholic schools -- his daughter to an elementary school in the city and his son to Chaminade, a private high school in the county. Ask Slay what neighborhood public elementary school his children would have attended, and the aldermanic president looks stumped: "I'm not sure. Mallinckrodt is a magnet school." He rattles off the names of three other schools, finally hitting on Mason School, which turns out to be where his children would go.

Bosley went to public schools, graduating from Farragut Elementary and Central High School. His daughter attended a public school, the Euclid Montessori magnet school, until this fall, when her parents became dissatisfied and transferred her to a private school. "My wife and daughter showed up at the magnet school in September, and four of the teachers were gone, including hers. My wife had had it," Bosley says. School officials told the Bosleys that "teachers' aides" would be in those classrooms and that there was no timetable specifying when certified teachers would return.

That the ex-mayor's daughter would feel the brunt of the teacher shortage should be no surprise. In a poverty-riddled district with 45,801 students and about 3,800 teaching positions, there have been 250-300 teaching vacancies for years. That doesn't count the long-term substitute teachers who fill classrooms. Other markers used to measure a school district's distress include the number of students who qualify for the federal free and reduced-cost lunch program. In city schools, 81.7 percent of students qualify.

Those numbers don't include the 13,000 African-American students who get on buses each morning and head to suburban school districts as part of interdistrict desegregation program that has been winding down since its settlement in 1999. Within three years of that court-ordered settlement, suburban districts will be able to opt out of the program, phasing out the city students. As those students head back to city schools, they will further strain the district's resources.

The sword of Damocles hanging over the city schools is accreditation. Before retiring last year, state education commissioner Robert Bartman recommended that the city district lose its accreditation, but the court settlement of the desegregation case prohibited that from happening for two years. Some hoped that if the district lost accreditation, the state would name a take-charge CEO to run the system, similar to the way Chicago wrested control of its troubled school system in 1995. That hope, or fear, was diminished when the state gave the district provisional accreditation in November.

William Taylor, lawyer for the plaintiffs in the desegregation case, is concerned that without the threat of loss of accreditation, the district will lack a sense of urgency about its troubles. "I think there are severe problems. I don't think they're doing very well upgrading the teacher workforce," he says. "The state superintendent just pulled the rug out from under any real efforts by giving the district provisional accreditation. Now they've made the whole thing disappear.

"This is probably water under the bridge, but I think they need to go back next year and do a real review to see if [the district] deserve[s] accreditation. If they don't, they need to yank it and put somebody in there on a temporary basis to run the school district."

Jim Morris, of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, maintains that the district could be reviewed again next year, though this will depend on test scores. When Bartman wanted to strip the St. Louis Public Schools of their accreditation, the district met three of the 11 Missouri School Improvement Program standards. At that time, the Kansas City schools met none of the 11 standards. In November, St. Louis met five of 11 standards and was granted provisional accreditation.

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