Cool breeze blows choices to St. Louis schoolchildren

Sunday, September 2, 2001

When was it ever but a treason, to go with the drift of things? -- Anonymous

There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. -- Victor Hugo

That sunny, unseasonably breezy August afternoon, Sunday the 19th, was suggestive of good things to come. And indeed, the winds of change are blowing for St. Louis schoolchildren.

More than 200 of us gathered in a tough, long-decaying neighborhood on the mean streets of north St. Louis, six blocks west of Grand Avenue in front of the old Perpetual Help School, long closed by the St. Louis Archdiocese. Purpose: To make an announcement that is already being called historic, unprecedented, path-breaking. The Church of God in Christ will open four new private, non-sectarian schools in the city this month between Sept. 10 and 17. Two more schools will follow before this school year ends, if planners succeed in prompting the expected community response. (That means you, dear reader.) It is indeed a hopeful wind blowing this idea -- greater parental choice in their children's schools -- "whose time has come."

Informed of details of last month's announcement, nationally known education reform expert Chester Finn, a former top official at the U.S. Department of Education, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "This is evidence of the entrepreneurialism and innovation in education today. And it shows the desperation with which many view the plight of kids in public education."

These will be "no excuses schools," says Tim Daniels, director of St. Louis Academies, who this time last year was flying jets as a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps in Hawaii before returning to his native St. Louis. His assistant director is respected longtime educator Dr. Diana Bourisaw.

By the following Tuesday, to its credit, the Post-Dispatch was reporting on a woman who came to the St. Louis Academies' location at Perpetual Help seeking to enroll her grand niece there: "When I saw this on the news, I jumped for joy," said Sharon Frison. That Post-Dispatch story, like most good reporting on the charter-school movement in St. Louis, is the superb work of a truth-telling reporter named Matthew Franck.

The mandarins of the Education Establishment -- state and local -- are smug in their comfortable offices and full of reasons why this can't be done and why we must accept the status quo. Daniels, Bourisaw, Bishop Lawrence Wooten and this writer have a simple answer: Get out of the way, and we will demonstrate that it can be done for a fraction of the $10,000 per student or so you're spending to produce that 58 percent dropout rate.

"Everyone will know how we're doing by Christmas," Daniels told the Post-Dispatch. We're saying our prayers, rolling up our sleeves and redoubling our efforts. Stay tuned.

Peter Kinder is assistant to the chairman of Rust Communications and president pro tem of the Missouri Senate.

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