The Big Fix

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

How well are charter schools doing, and will the public schools actually improve as the result of the "competitive" model? Unfortunately, the answers so far are not heartening.

Since the 1998 law was enacted, 17 charter schools have opened in Kansas City, with a total enrollment of about 5,600; St. Louis has five schools with about 1,400 students.

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

As for the academic performance of charter schools, there hasn't been much good news to report. Jocelyn Strand, director of charter schools for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, says the only test scores in so far are from the 1999-2000 school year from Kansas City's charter schools (St. Louis had no charter schools that year). The results are "same or lower than" the regular public schools. "There were a few that scored higher, but mostly they did not score as well as the district schools," she says.

Financially speaking, the two districts are taking a hit from charter schools. Surprising to most observers is the fact that an estimated 30 to 40 percent of charter-school students are coming from private or parochial schools. Although the state and federal governments provide their share of the revenue -- at about $6,000 per student in St. Louis -- the local tax revenue must come from the school district. In Kansas City, the 17 charter schools were paid $39 million last year, and in St. Louis, the four schools were paid $9.4 million, according to figures provided by the two districts. About 45 percent of that money -- roughly $22 million -- came from local taxes that otherwise would have remained in the districts.

There is a more intangible negative effect of charter schools. "One of the potential weaknesses of charter schools is that you tend to pull some of the motivated students and parents out of the regular public schools and into the charter schools," says House. "That could be a problem. I do worry about that."

Kinder, who refers to charter schools as a "beacon of hope in the dark night" for parents, envisions entire charter-school districts. House simply hopes that they can provide a clue to improving the existing districts. But House insists that even if the charter-school lifeboat can accommodate only a small percentage of students, it's worth it. "If, by doing this, we have created a better opportunity for students than they otherwise would have had, without doing it to the detriment of anybody else, then we have succeeded," House says. "If one child gets a better education and lives a better life, than that's what this is all about."

The irony of that statement is a bit much. For the past two decades, proponents of the voluntary-desegregation program in St. Louis argued the same thing -- it might not entirely solve the problem of inequality of educational opportunity for all city students, but it was at least providing a better education for the black students who hopped on buses to go to St. Louis County schools each year.

The 1998 charter-school provision was part of a larger bill designed to phase out the desegregation program, which allowed roughly 13,000 city students to attend schools in county districts. That punched a hole in a much larger lifeboat than charter schools will ever provide.

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