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Schools at top of mayoral candidates' list of issues

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 8, 2013 - The Democrats running for mayor in St. Louis may not agree on much, but they do have at least one thing in common: They put education at the top of their list of issues that matter to them and, more importantly, to the city voters who will decide whether Francis Slay gets a fourth term at City Hall.

Slay, who faces challenges in next month’s Democratic primary from Lewis Reed, president of the Board of Aldermen, and former Alderman Jimmie Matthews, needs little prompting to talk about what he has accomplished for the city’s schoolchildren and what still needs to be done.

And Reed needs little prompting to challenge the mayor’s accomplishments in education during his 12 years in office.

During that time, the St. Louis Public Schools have been taken over by the state and put under control of an appointed three-member Special Administrative Board. Charged with improving academics, strengthening finances and stabilizing governance, the SAB scored a major victory last year when the state upgraded the district to provisional accreditation.

But the move did not lead to the return of an elected school board, and if projections from Missouri’s new method of rating school districts hold, the city schools might have a difficult time holding on to their new upgraded status.

During the same time that the state has been running the St. Louis Public Schools, the number of charter schools in the city increased, with an enrollment last fall of more than 8,400 students. But the growth did not come without problems, including the closing of failing charters such as the Imagine group of schools.

The voluntary interdistrict desegregation program, which allows African-American students in the city to transfer to selected districts in St. Louis County, continues and has been extended for another five years, to 2019. A fundamental change in the program, which would introduce a means test for families whose students want to transfer, has been introduced for discussion.

Another situation that could have profoundly affected the city and its school-age students, the so-called Turner case, remains in legal limbo. It concerns a state law that allows children who live in an unaccredited school district to transfer to nearby accredited districts, with their home district paying the tuition.

While the provisional accreditation status for the city schools has spared them from being subject to the law, at least for now, the possibility that they could lose accreditation under the new rating system keeps that potential cloud over the system’s finances.

At a court hearing last year, Superintendent Kelvin Adams testified that if the district had to pay for tuition and transportation of transferring students, it could not afford to function for the students who remained.

Against that backdrop, the Democratic candidates for mayor have been discussing what they will do to help students in the city get the best education they can, and how that education will in turn help the city prosper. Here is what they have to say.

Francis Slay

As he completes his third term and hopes for a fourth, Slay is quick to point out that he has no direct control over the St. Louis school system. Instead, he has used the bully pulpit of the mayor’s office to try to make the district’s schools better and help make sure that if families choose charter schools instead, those schools offer a top-quality education.

“Education is our most critical challenge and our most urgent challenge in the city of St. Louis,” Slay told the Beacon. “It underlies everything else we’re trying to achieve – safe neighborhoods, better opportunities for young people, attracting jobs, even race relations.

“This really gets to the core of us as a community, doing everything we can to make sure every child has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.”

Slay said he supported the state takeover of the city school system and has been encouraged by the steady progress the district has shown. To help, he said the city has partnered with the schools in areas like recreation programs and full-service schools to make sure that families have access to a full range of services.

He is glad that the system gained provisional accreditation, but he isn’t satisfied.

“Think about it,” Slay said. “If people think making some progress and getting provisional accreditation is a big win, they’re wrong. Accreditation isn’t the highest standard of excellence. It is the lowest level of quality we should expect. They haven’t reached that yet. They’re only halfway there.”

But, he added, he also wants to make sure that good charter schools are available to provide families a choice.

“We have to make sure we don’t put all our eggs in one basket,” Slay said. “We know there are not enough good schools. Too many kids who need education the most to succeed, particularly low-income kids, are not getting access to enough quality education options. So I launched an aggressive approach to establish quality – and I emphasize quality – charter schools.”

Slay and his education policy assistant, Robbyn Wahby, have actively worked with groups that want to start charter schools and put them together with willing sponsors and charter operators. So far, he said, his office has endorsed 20 charters, of which 15 are open, three more are set to open this fall and the other two are on deck.

“There are some real wins there,” he said, “in terms of quality education. It gives families a flexibility and a creativity they can’t get in the St. Louis Public Schools system.”

When that quality is not present, such as at the Imagine charters, Slay said he has not hesitated to call for the schools to shut down.

“I called for their closure,” he said. “That was controversial. There were some 3,000 kids out there that had no school to go to once they were closed. But we helped them get placed in St. Louis Public Schools and other quality schools.”

Slay said he is not interested in getting into the “food fight” of trying to gain mayoral control for the schools because he doesn’t want to prompt a controversy that shifts focus from children. What he would like, though, is the opportunity for the mayor’s office to sponsor charters, as the mayor of cities like Indianapolis can, to make sure kids have enough good options.

He emphasized that establishing and maintaining good schools are not just about education but the future of the city itself. He noted that lots of college-educated people think St. Louis is a great place to live, but once they become parents, they start to look elsewhere.

“We know that in the last census, we can attribute the net loss of population to a loss of families with children,” Slay said. “We had more people moving into the city than anyplace else, but we also had more people moving out of the city than anyplace else.

“We have to make sure that families have good quality education options to make sure they stay in the city. They have everything but schools.”

Slay himself sent his two children to parochial schools, the same system that he attended in the city.

“Like any parent,” he said, “I want to make sure I send my children to the best quality schools. I did, and I was fortunate enough to be able to afford it. They’re doing well. I think every parent should have that same opportunity.”

Lewis Reed

Reed’s campaign has had a heavy emphasis on public safety, but he says if he had to rank the importance of issues in his race to unseat Slay, he would put education at No. 1 and crime at No. 2.

What would be the best use of his talents at City Hall in terms of improving the options for city students?

“The mayor can provide direction,” Reed said. “He begins to establish how people feel about the school system.”

Reed also believes that the mayor can "provide the direction necessary to support our public school system to becoming a top-notch institution. This will be a daily endeavor, most of which would happen away from photo ops and press conferences. It will involve asking everyone that the mayor’s office interacts with what they think they can do to improve the education situation for our children." 

And, he says, Slay is leading in the wrong direction.

“If you ever watch any of his interviews,” he said, “he never has anything positive to say about the St. Louis Public Schools. He talks about how we need to move to charter schools.

“Recently he has begun to talk positively about the school system, but I think where he continues to miss the boat is the fact that when people look at other options, and determining where they want to live, from the city of St. Louis you can be in a new school district in 15 minutes. It’s not a very difficult choice to go to a new school district.”

Reed said he doesn’t think the mayor would need to have direct control of the city school system to bring out improvements, and he certainly doesn’t think Slay could make the schools better if he took over.

“Just look at what he has direct control of now,” he said. “You can go down the list, issue after issue after issue. I don’t see how we could handle the school system, too.”

But, he said, the mayor’s office, could highlight the positive accomplishments of the city school system and push for mandatory pre-school. He wants to see more recreational and sports programs for children as well, to channel their energies into positive activities.

On charter schools, Reed said:

“Charter schools are a good second choice, but there is a difference in the way I view charter schools and the way Francis Slay views charter schools. He views them as a replacement of the public schools, and that’s a mistake. I don’t think they in any way, shape or form should be viewed as a replacement.

“We have had failed charter schools and failed oversight of those schools. I think they need to be part of the educational choice picture, but not to the point where we are working to make sure they are replacement schools. Charter schools, in and of themselves, will never be a solution for what we see in terms of parents making a decision to go someplace else. We could have the best charter schools in the nation and still lose population.”

Reed said that before the leadership of the city schools system reverts to an elected board from the appointed SAB, he wants to see the system achieve full accreditation.

“I think that now that the turmoil of the change is over with,” he said, “we should stay the course until they complete some of the work and the plans they have been working on.”

As far as the future of the desegregation plan goes, he thinks it should only end “when our school system is truly performing. I think that we will naturally outgrow it. I wouldn’t even venture to guess on that. But people need to look at how far we have come in terms of turning the system around. I think everybody is encouraged that the system is on the right track now.”

He said that his two children with his first wife went to public schools in Florissant, where she lives. His two younger children have attended both public and charter schools.

“It’s not like we felt the public schools were bad or anything,” Reed said. “They had a great education at Gateway. But when we looked at St. Louis Charter, we saw there were fewer students there and they had an opportunity to be in smaller classes. That’s what my wife wanted for them, a smaller school experience.”

Jimmie Matthews

Asked about his education priorities, Matthews, who is a retired teacher, called a lack of discipline the biggest problem in schools today. He wants programs to teach students better listening skills and a stronger sense of morality to set a better tone.

He said that the SAB in charge of the city schools “seems to be selling off the schools’ assets to charter schools. They are depleting the resources the schools need to be successful.”

He added that “charter schools are about corporate America taking over the public school sector. They want to make a profit.”

Matthews would like to see more vocational education, to give students the skills they need for jobs.

“You can’t just try to get kids to go to college,” he said. “They have to train to get a job and work their way through college. That’s what I did.”

As far as the desegregation program goes, Matthews said that he would like to see children go to schools that are closer to where they live.

“You need to create a social network where students go to schools in their neighborhoods,” he said.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.