Charter schools reinventing inner-city public education

Sunday, June 2, 2002

A friend who formerly served with this writer in the state legislature tells of a conversation with a friendly labor leader well-known in the St. Louis area. This labor leader told my former colleague excitedly, some three years or so ago, that they had in the works a promising new charter school that would soon open in the inner city. Asked to elaborate, the labor honcho told my buddy that the school would focus on training students for the building trades, with an emphasis on such math and science as would be necessary to equip young people to be hired in heavy construction upon their graduation.

"That's great, Sam [not his real name]," replied my friend. "But we already have one of those out in St. Charles County," which he then represented.

"You do?" replied the labor leader, expressing interest in hearing more.

Taking this cue, my smiling former colleague sprung his trap: "Yes. We call it a high school!"

Biting humor? Maybe. But nonetheless a commentary on the state of urban public education, in St. Louis and other large cities across America, including Kansas City. Stakeholders from all parts of the community -- labor, business, neighborhood groups, parents, taxpayers -- are stepping up to do something about an urban public school system, designed in the 19th century, that too often fails us all. With its top-heavy bureaucracy, its $10,000 per-student expenditures, its 60-percent dropout rates, it is apparent that the monolithic public system long ago ceased serving its charges well. (The children! Remember them?)

Charter schools of the kind championed by many of us in the General Assembly continue to re-invent public education in its weakest sector: the inner city. In western Missouri, where leaders took advantage of the law we passed in 1998, Kansas City is home to the fastest-growing charter school movement in America, with 17 charter schools open and most thriving. Charter-school enrollment reached 10 percent of the KC school district population last year.

Progress in St. Louis has been, by comparison, agonizingly slow. More than four years after passage of the law, today there are only five charter schools in St. Louis serving 1,900 students. Many are the reasons for this, but progress continues. By August, that number could more than double if existing charters expand and two more open as expected. Two years ago, the Lift-for-Life Academy opened. A math-science charter school is planned for St. Louis this fall, chartered, at the prodding of this writer and other colleagues, by the University of Missouri-Rolla.

The St. Louis Academies opened two charter schools last September with support from this writer. One is located in one of the most troubled neighborhoods in Missouri or anywhere else: in north St. Louis, six blocks west of the water tower that is located on Grand Ave. The St. Louis Academies start-up was featured in a lead editorial "The Bishop and the Marine" in the Wall Street Journal last August. St. Louis Academies has since secured a charter from Southeast Missouri State University to operate one of their previously private schools -- the former St. Boniface -- as one of these new, public charter schools.

Now comes more national attention for school choice, St. Louis style: The Wall Street Journal of Tuesday, May 28, contained a lengthy article profiling St. Louis' new Construction Careers Center.

Progress continues. We need help from all.

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

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