St. Louis, a city so segregated that the dividing line between whites and blacks has a name––the Delmar Divide. The city of St. Louis has a long history of racial segregation. And although attempts have been made to desegregate, St. Louis still remains severely segregated. The racial segregation in St. Louis has large implications on education as students living in middle class neighborhoods with good schools are receiving an education drastically different from students attending other public schools less than half an hour away. In hopes to improve education all throughout St. Louis, many educators and parents have turned to school choice as a solution. School choice is the ability for parents and families to choose to attend schools other than what is assigned according to district lines based on one’s residency. Being a widely controversial topic for the gateway city with both charter schools and traditional public schools fighting for resources and students, several competing perspectives argue about whether school choice is helpful or harmful for the city of St. Louis. While school choice does prove to alleviate many of the stresses and hurdles faced by families who live in neighborhoods with failing public schools, charter schools and school choice do not solve the issues seen in St. Louis’ public school education.
Advocates for school choice argue that school choice is necessary because when traditional public schools are not addressing the educational needs of students, parents should have other options. In St. Louis, similar to most other cities, students are assigned to public schools based on students’ residency. “Families without the means to send their children to private schools or move to better performing school districts are locked into the public schools within the state’s artificial district boundary lines” (Palmer, 2019b). If a student lives in a school district where traditional public schools are failing, charter schools provide students and parents alternative schooling options. Missouri representative Mark Matthiesen, a supporter of school choice, argues that parents should have the option of enrolling their child in a charter school if they are assigned to subpar schools and if parents “feel that [a] charter school can better meet the needs of their own child,” (Delaney, 2018).
Opponents of school choice argue that charter schools have detracted from their original purpose and intent. Charter schools, proposed by Albert Shanker, were originally designed and intended to give teachers autonomy over their teaching, allowing them to experiment with innovative teaching. With a four- to five-year licensed period for experimentation, charter schools were supposed to explore alternative ways of teaching to impact the students for whom traditional methods of teaching were not working. However, “originally viewed as ‘isolated laboratories of innovation,’ charter schools came to be seen by many as a replacement for traditional public schools and ‘charter-school expansion as a solution itself’” (Kahlenberg & Potter, 2014, p. 16). Missouri Representative Kathy Swan, an opponent of charter schools, agrees, saying that “we’ve veered off path [with charter schools]… They were to be schools of innovation; they have not become schools of innovation.” (Delaney, 2018).
Another argument opposing school choice is that there is not enough accountability for charter schools: “When traditional public schools have failed, the Missouri State Board of Education has revoked their accreditation, taken over schools and even shut down an entire district. But when a charter school shows poor performance, the state board can sanction its sponsor but not the school” (Taketa, 2017). Regulations to ensure that poor performing charter schools are held accountable for poor performance outcomes need to be better enforced. For example, a 14-year old charter school called Confluence Academies has received a five-year license renewal, despite failing accreditation scores. Based upon accreditation scores alone, Confluence would have been shut down had it been a traditional public school, as the school is severely underperforming. However, it is important to consider the context. Although Confluence has concerningly low accreditation scores, Confluence Academies’ increasing accreditation scores and student achievement scores relative to neighboring public schools prove to be significant. With state accreditation passed at 48.3 percent, Confluence Academies improved from a 28.3 percent rating in 2013 and is outperforming nearby public schools. “33.2 percent of students at Confluence’s Aspire Academy scored proficient or advanced in English, compared to just 10.6 percent for Walbridge Elementary located two blocks away and 15.2 percent at nearby Herzog Elementary.” (Taketa, 2017). Therefore, although some charter schools in St. Louis are underperforming, at the very least some prove to be better alternatives to local public schools.
A recurring theme amongst the articles addressing charter schools in St. Louis is the issue of school funding. Charter school opponents argue that charter schools take funds that would otherwise go into helping improve traditional public schools, and the rising concern is that financial resources are being spread too thin. For some, there is a large concern over “redirecting resources from public schools to unproven charter schools” (Palmer, 2019a). In fact, since 2000, over 30 charter schools have opened in St. Louis, but roughly half of them have had to shut down because of academic or financial failure (Bernhard, 2019). With so many schools closing, concerns arise regarding the harmful effects of students being displaced after schools close. When schools close, hundreds if not thousands of students are left without schools and are consequently forced into local public schools, further straining those already struggling schools that lack resources and funding.
To make matters more complex, not only are charter schools being closed, but as more charter schools open, resources, funds, and students are being taken away from traditional public schools, ultimately causing some public schools to close due to a lack of enrollment. In sum, as people have turned to charter schools as a solution to inadequate public school education, public schools are left with fewer resources and students. The charter schools that were hoped to provide better educational opportunities and outcomes did not meet expectations, causing charter schools to close down. Ultimately, in attempts to provide school choice and better educational opportunities for students, charter schools have contributed to the detriment of St. Louis’ public education as a whole, leaving more students displaced and without adequate education. Thus, the focus should not be on creating more charter schools for students to have the option to attend but rather improving the state of public school education. Charter schools are not the solution to struggling schools in St. Louis. Rather, the focus should be on improving existing schools by raising more effective and qualified teachers and providing students with challenging and intellectually stimulating curriculum.
A rising concern about charter schools in St. Louis is the increasing segregation that is seen within and across schools: if you’re a black student enrolled in one of Missouri’s dozens of charter schools, you can expect about 81 percent of your peers to be black, too. The same goes for white students attending traditional public schools: If you’re white, you can expect 83 percent of your classmates to be white. (Palmer, 2019b)
Although evidence shows large amounts of segregation within and across St. Louis schools, the segregation seen in schooling is largely due to the context of neighborhoods––the patterns generally match the population of their surrounding neighborhoods. Considering the Delmar Divide as mentioned in the introduction of this paper, St. Louis is racially divided along Delmar Boulevard. As one travels north of the road, higher concentrations of black and low-income families are found; as one travels south of Delmar, there are higher concentrations of white, middle-class folk, many of whom are found living in gated communities. Additionally, “for the most part (the state of Missouri) has said charter schools have to open in school districts that are already segregated” (Palmer, 2019b). Inequity in education is not localized just in classrooms and in schools; it manifests through multiple systems of oppression, through structures like racial segregation and residential segregation. Rather than spending time, money, and resources on creating new schools, efforts need to be on providing students within these contexts better educational opportunities, including better teachers and more challenging curriculum. The ultimate goal should be for all students to receive high quality and equitable education no matter what school they attend.
While there are charter schools that are failing in terms of achievement and accreditation, the results of charter schools as a whole are comparable to St. Louis’ traditional public school education, with some schools doing well, some schools doing poorly, and the rest falling on a spectrum in between. School choice should be an option for students attending schools in failing districts, but these schools will require some measures to prove their effectiveness, perhaps by having baseline goals or having increasing scores throughout its initial licensed period. School choice provides families who live in neighborhoods with failing or struggling public schools, especially those located north of the Delmar Divide, with more educational options that would hope to provide better learning opportunities for their students. However, rather than jumping to charter schools as the solution for failing public schools, St. Louis community members, including educators, board members, sponsors, and parents, need to be vigilant in ensuring that all schools, both traditional public schools and charter schools, are high quality.
- Bernhard, B. (2019, February 24). A private school turns charter, 20 years after the first charter schools opened in Missouri. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Retrieved from https://www.stltoday.com/
- Delaney, R. (2018, February 6). Latest attempt at charter school expansion would target failing schools, not districts. St. Louis Public Radio. Retrieved from https://news.stlpublicradio.org/
- Kahlenberg, R. D., & Potter, H. (2014). A Smarter Charter: Finding what works for charter schools and public education. Teachers College Press.
- Palmer, K. (2019a, February 5). Charter school expansion on the table again in Missouri. Columbia Missourian. Retrieved from https://www.columbiamissourian.com/
- Palmer, K. (2019b, April 8). Study: Missouri’s charter school policies hinder integration. Columbia Missourian. Retrieved from https://www.columbiamissourian.com/
- Taketa, K. (2017, February 26). These St. Louis charter schools have struggled for 14 years, but continue to evade closure. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Retrieved from https://www.stltoday.com/