The Big Fix

Public schools are broke all over, so why are only St. Louis and Kansas City getting charter schools?

Last week, we were treated to the news that only 9 percent of Missouri 10th-graders scored as proficient or advanced in science, and a whopping 13 percent scored the same in math. Overall, between 54 and 91 percent of public-school students scored below state standards.

On the same day the state released those sorry scores, the St. Louis Board of Education's meeting turned to chaos. Infighting among board members in a closed session resulted in security guards' being called to restore order.

The ship of schools is not just adrift, it's sinking.

State Sen. Ted House
Jennifer Silverberg
State Sen. Ted House

And what exactly is the Missouri Legislature doing?

Sending out a little lifeboat called "charter schools" that may -- or may not -- save a tiny percentage of students. That's about it. No declaration of emergency, no radical reforms, no more money.

"Charter schools were originally proposed by people who really were hostile to public education, and there was a segment out there promoting it as an alternative to public education, and what they really wanted was vouchers and taxpayer funding for private schools," says state Sen. Ted House, a Democrat from St. Charles who was chairman of the education committee until this year, when his party lost the majority. House considers himself a champion of public education and authored the 1998 bill that allowed charter schools in St. Louis and Kansas City.

Among those "hostile" to public education may very well be House's colleague Sen. Peter Kinder, a Republican from Cape Girardeau, president pro tem of the Senate and one of the state's leading proponents of charter schools. Kinder is generally considered to be from the Taliban faction of his party, and the targets of his unholy war have included unions and public-school teachers.

For instance, he proudly notes that among the host of state rules and regulations that charter schools are exempt from is one allowing them to have up to 20 percent of their teaching staff without state certification. "'Certified' means that you took 900 hours of advanced techniques in blackboard-erasing in graduate school in a college of education," he says. "Einstein could not teach physics, Bill Gates could not teach a computer course, Steve Forbes could not go in and teach economics because they never submitted themselves to the indignity of education courses. So the master engineer who retires at age 53 from Boeing after 30 years could go and teach physics at charter schools, never having set foot inside a college of education."

Well, if it's such a good idea -- and it may be a debatable point -- to not require certification, then why not allow all public school districts to relax or abandon certification? In fact, why not allow all public schools to be free from the same set of regulations -- which cover curriculum, class size, libraries, guidance and counseling, and the requirement that schools have 174 days and 1,044 hours of academic instruction -- that charter schools are exempt from?

"Because you couldn't pass it," says Kinder. "There aren't enough votes."

This is a recurring refrain. Both Kinder and House had similar answers to another question -- which has never been asked, let alone answered -- regarding the charter-school law both of them supported: Given that the law simply allows charter schools and doesn't impose or require them, why did the bill restrict such schools to Kansas City and St. Louis?

"You're making a rational, logical, persuasive argument, and the answer is political pragmatism," says House. "I mean, it never would have passed if it had been statewide -- and the reason is that in small towns, very often, the school superintendents are very big fish, and they run the town, a lot of times. And those superintendents wanted no part of this. They were afraid of their kingdom being interfered with, and so rural legislators responded to that. It simply wouldn't have passed at all."

Says Kinder: "The bill almost certainly would not have passed" if the schools were allowed statewide.

Never mind that 35 districts statewide have "provisional accreditation," the same as the St. Louis district (the Kansas City district is the only unaccredited one in the state).

Both legislators acknowledge that charter schools are an experiment, that the jury is still out on whether they can provide a better education than existing public schools and that something "radical" had to be done to meet the hunger of parents for an alternative. Kinder refers to the charter-school law as "a linchpin for reform." House talks about it as a "safety valve" needed to let parents "blow off steam," before they became desperate enough to demand vouchers "which would destroy public education."

But neither man can point to what exactly makes a public school -- charter or otherwise -- do a good job of educating kids. The supposed advantages of charter schools are that they are exempt from state regulations, they have no central bureaucracy, they are more accountable to their constituents and they will somehow provide what House calls "an administrative or strategic model" for the regular public schools.

Meanwhile, the same legislators have elected to ignore some basic measures that obviously would help improve city schools, such as decreased class sizes. "I'm open to that," Kinder says, but he hasn't lifted a finger to push for it.

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