In the 911 world of St. Louis' public schools, two plus two doesn't equal four, and a significant part of the schools' future may depend on decisions made in Cape Girardeau, 90 miles toward the Bootheel.
Missouri Education Commissioner Robert Bartman recommended last Thursday to the state Board of Education that the city schools lose accreditation, but the board tabled the motion for two years. On the basis of Bartman's opinion, the board's inaction and the terms of the court settlement of the desegregation suit, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) believes the clock is ticking on the two-year window in which the city district must obtain accreditation. If the problems aren't fixed by July 1, 2002, contrary to what some believe, the city won't get the normal two years from that point to fix things.
"It is not two-plus-two. It is not two years under the settlement and then two years after that," says Jim Morris, a spokesman for DESE in Jefferson City. In this interpretation of the desegregation settlement, if city schools lose accreditation in 2002, the state could immediately step in, restructuring the district and appointing a new board to oversee operations.
Meanwhile, charter schools appear to be on the way to the district by way of Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO). State Sen. Peter Kinder (R-Cape Girardeau) tacked an amendment onto an unrelated bill last session that allowed SEMO to be a sponsoring institution for charter schools in St. Louis. Last year, Senate Bill 781 provided the funding framework for the St. Louis desegregation settlement and also permitted charter schools to be opened in Kansas City and St. Louis, but in no other districts. Kinder's amendment didn't change that; charter schools still cannot exist in Cape Girardeau.
Why is Kinder is so concerned about charter schools in St. Louis, and why did he vote for SB 781? He says it was "because of the reforms in the bill that would try to yank the St. Louis School Board and Dr. (Cleveland) Hammonds by the lapels and try to get their attention." Kinder calls it "disgraceful" that the court settlement removed many of the sanctions of SB 781.
"I believe passionately that parents need more choices. We need to bring competition to education, especially urban education, where it can be demonstrated to have failed so badly," says Kinder. "The schoolchildren of the city of St. Louis are under a two-year sentence and are not able to escape. The settlement of the deseg case and stripping all the reforms of the bill was a tragic detour. The bill would not have passed if we had known they were going to throw up a roadblock to every reform we put in there. I wouldn't have voted for it."
Kinder says SEMO is "cautious" about getting involved in sponsoring and overseeing charter schools, perhaps spooked by the experience of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, which approved the city's only charter school, only to see it become mired in bad publicity over its director's criminal record and the target of a lawsuit by the city school district. SEMO is planning a meeting in November in St. Louis to listen to interested parties; Kinder claims there are several "good people with good charter plans in incubation" in the city.
And just when you thought the scene couldn't get any stranger, Kinder and fellow Sen. Steve Ehlmann (R-St. Charles) have planned a press conference Wednesday in front of the St. Louis Board of Education, downtown at 911 Locust St., in which the conservative Republicans from St. Charles and Cape Girardeau will announce their plans to save the inner city. As Alice would say, things are getting curiouser and curiouser.
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