Controversy exposes folly of charter-mania

Charter schools, born out of frustration with public education, promise a simple formula for success:

Relax the rules.

Now more than 1,000 strong nationally, charter schools come in all shapes and sizes, with countless structures and philosophies and educational missions. What they are isn't nearly is clear as what they aren't.

What they aren't is carefully regulated.

Other than compliance with the broadest health, safety and civil-rights laws — and "minimum educational standards" — charter schools are, in the words of the new Missouri law that made them possible in St. Louis and Kansas City, "exempt from all laws and rules relating to schools, governing boards and school districts."

What might that mean in real life?

Meet Lamar Basil Beyah.

Beyah is the chief executive officer of the first charter school approved for St. Louis, the African-American Rite of Passage Learning and Education Institute­Arthur J. Kennedy Skills school. It will open for 424 children on Sept. 3 at 4300 Goodfellow, unless that's prevented by a lawsuit filed last week by the St. Louis Board of Education.

Beyah is also a man who was sentenced to a 42-month prison term in 1986 for conspiring to steal $20,000 in postal money orders and, after an early release, was returned to prison for a probation violation when he tested positive for PCP and cocaine. This — along with failure to pay child support and some other allegations — was reported two weeks ago by the Post-Dispatch.

The story was filled with outrage, from St. Louis Public Schools superintendent Cleveland Hammonds ("This deeply troubles me") to state Sen. Ted House ("This obviously is a strong red flag") to Missouri education commissioner Bob Bartman ("I don't know whether this person has reformed ... but under the current law it doesn't seem to matter, which is unfortunate").

Harsh letters (about Beyah, mostly) and editorials followed. Given his past, this gentleman is not exactly what the charter-school movement had in mind.

But the bad publicity wasn't what Beyah had in mind, either. His communications consultant, Leonardo Drisdel — a WGNU-AM talk-show host and a fine fellow, in my experience — invited me over for the purpose of getting Beyah's side of the story aired in a more just manner.

After an hour with Beyah, here's my take of his best spin: This is a man who played the game of "schools without rules" by its rules, such that they are. He developed his plan, contracted with a national firm specializing in charter-school management and won sponsorship from the University of Missouri­St. Louis on the basis of his proposal, not his background (which the university probably would have had no legal basis to consider under the charter-school law).

And if, to borrow the charter-school movement's favorite word, you want "independence," well, public-school bashers, you've got your "independence" in Lamar Basil Beyah.

My interview with Beyah didn't produce evidence that the Post story was inaccurate, only that he didn't appreciate its investigative tone. He started with the assertion that the focus of the story should have been on how a man studied in the prison library, put his life back together as a volunteer mentor in the public schools and fought to see through a dream of giving back to the community through this school, not on the mistakes of the past.

From that point on, I felt a little like comedian Bob Newhart doing an interview to draw out the best spin:

What's factually wrong with the Post story? Beyah served "23 months and 15 days," not 41 months as reported. All righty.

Let's talk about Beyah's background with kids for this. Well, he has nine children — six of his own by the first of his four wives; the other three belong to his wife, Iretha (treasurer of the school), before they were together. Fine.

What about the child support? Beyah says he only stopped paying it when he got fired from his last job, in 1995, and that the debt — which he estimates at $16,000, is to the state, not his ex-wife. And he has every intention of paying it in full, but he doesn't have a job and won't be receiving compensation from the school. His wife presently is the main income-earner, Beyah says.

OK. I'm thinking all this isn't going to play so well just anywhere in Missouri — indeed, it's feeling a little like a Mad TV skit — but then we got to the substance of his philosophy for the school. That's where Beyah is really independent.

"We will be offering a complete, human multicultural education," Beyah says. "Our objective is give African-American youth a clear view of their history. They have as much right as anyone else to know their past — the good, the bad and the ugly — and we want to help them succeed by understanding where they've come from, going back to and before slavery."

Beyah and Drisdel were careful to note that the school is open to all races and religions, but they declined to discuss the racial composition of their student body, with Beyah actually saying he was unaware of what it is. But there was little doubt that, in addition to a core curriculum on the normal range of subjects, there was what Drisdel termed a "strong emphasis on the history of the African-American in this country."

But isn't it taught in the public schools, where Beyah served for several years as a mentor?

"They give misdirection, misinformation and in some cases downright lies," says Beyah. "The city schools don't give African-American children a clear view of their history, the county schools don't and schools all over the country don't. We're going to do that, along with giving a strong emphasis on the social aspect of the community and providing vocational education."

Beyah says he's had nothing but support from the families of his enrolled students since the Post bombshell dropped, and that he even has a waiting list of 100 more who want to attend. About all that can stop him in is the school board's lawsuit claiming the school is discriminatory and unfit, among other things.

I don't know how that will turn out, but I do know this: If someone on the other side of town was receiving public funding with an emphasis of similar ethnic intensity, everyone would be howling. And they'd be right.

Beyah's ideas, at least as he expressed them to me, would be perfectly fine and appropriate for a private school, but not for a public one. About as much can be said about his background.

But don't blame Beyah for the charter-school mess. This is what you asked for, charter-school fans, and this is what you get.

Next time, try rules.

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