Charter school supporters praise switch to allow charters to buy vacant school buildings
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 19, 2009 - Most members of a panel discussion Saturday on improving urban education praised St. Louis public school officials for removing a deed restriction that had prevented the sale of vacant city school buildings to groups that wanted to open charter schools.
The Special Administrative Board voted in a closed meeting Thursday to lift the ban, effective June 30. SAB’s vote, made public Friday morning, followed a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month by former investment banker Rex Sinquefield and attorney W. Bevis Schock. They had asked the court to order the school district to lift the deed restriction.
Earl Simms, state coordinator for Children Education Alliance, a pro-charter group, said charter proponents should remain vigilant to make sure the SAB does in fact agree to sell vacant buildings to charter groups that might want to buy them.
He said “games have been played with charter school operators” seeking to buy city school property, and added that there was no reason the SAB has to keep the deed restriction in place until June 30. Even so, Simms called the SAB’s action a “step in the right direction but we want to stay on this issue.”
The school reform conference at Harris Stowe attracted about 100 people. Joining panelists described as “national education leaders” were state Sen. Jeff Smith, and state Rep. T. D. El-Amin, both St. Louis Democrats and supporters of charter schools.
The session was billed as presenting a cross section of opinion about school reform. But the nine panelists included mostly proponents of charter schools and at least one avowed supporter of school vouchers, Kevin Chavous, co-founder of Democrats for Education Reform.
At one point during the question and answer session, Byron Clemens of St. Louis Teachers Union Local 420 politely told the conference that people should “follow the money” on some of the school issues. The trail, he said, would lead to Sinquefield, head of the Show-Me Institute and a backer of many pro-charter politicians and initiatives.
Clemens said in an interview that his union didn’t oppose the creation of good charter schools with unionized teachers, and he repeated his comment at the conference that he was distressed by schools created by “education vultures who want to take public taxpayers dollars for private interest” of undermining the public education system.
El-Amin took issue with Clemens’ comments, but several members of the panel did have ties, financially or philosophically, to Sinquefield. The Midwest regional director of Democrats for Education Reform, which hosted the conference, is Rodney Hubbard, a former representative. When he ran unsuccessful for a state Senate seat last year, he got large campaign donations from pro-charter groups.
The only conference panelist who defended city public schools and teachers was Ray Cummings, vice president of Teachers Union Local 420. After hearing some panelist complain about ineffective teachers, Cummings said teaching wasn’t just about reading, writing and arithmetic.
He argued that panelists and other city school critics interested in doing what’s best for children should embrace the union’s five-point plan of giving all children full access to pre-school, beginning at age 3. Cummings added that there were people with “bad habits” in every profession. He said a “quality performance based assessment” could help weed out underperformers, and that more professional development would be helpful for teachers relatively new to the system.
“The data show that teachers don’t hit their stride until the 5th or 7th year,” Cumming said.
On the whole, however, most panelists didn’t disagree with Cummings’ call for more services to prepare children for school, but they added that they favored giving youngster a range of education choices, including public and charter schools.
Joe Williams, director of Democrats for Education Reform, said “it’s an exciting time to be a Democrat,” and he added that the election of President Barack Obama represented change that will be beneficial for public education. He added that the American Federation of Teachers “spent a fortune to try to knock him (Obama) off the ballot.”
But Cummings corrected Williams, saying Local 420 had supported Obama’s candidacy from the start.
Benjamin Chavis, co-chair of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network, said local communities across the nation needed to figure out ways to do what’s best for children.
“I agree that President Obama offers change, but change is really going to take hold when we do it locally,” Chavis said. He cited the movement to lift the deed restriction, saying the outcome was “a victory for the people.”
Sen. Smith said he began to embrace school choice after working for a time in the city school system. He said he saw “wonderful things” happening, but he also called the job “a blessing in disguise,” because it allowed him to see “teachers who were just punching the clock. It was distressing to me.”
Sen. Smith said that experience led him to get involve in the charter school movement. He told of his ties to one city charter school and unlike many proponents of charter schools in general, Smith conceded that the achievement test scores at the school were relatively low but continue to improve every year.
Test scores are part of a ongoing debate about the worth of city charter schools. On the MAP test for math for 6th grader in city public schools, two of the top 10 performing schools were charters. So were two of the top four performing city schools on the 7th grade MAP test for math. In addition, three of the top nine performing city schools on the language art MAP test for 8th graders were charters.
On the other hand, two of eight charter schools in the city – St. Louis Charter School and Lift for Life Academy – had language arts MAP scores that were higher than those in regular public schools last year. Even so, these schools didn’t meet state requirement that 51 percent of students be proficient in language arts that year. Only 27 percent of students at St. Louis Charter and 23 percent of kids at Lift for Life Academy met the proficiency target. On average, about 22 percent of children in all city schools met the target, but the number was much higher for some individual city schools.
Aaron North, executive director of Missouri Charter Public Schools Association, said it was wrong to attack charters as taking kids from public schools since parents have been leaving the city school system for years. The discussion nowadays, he says, should be “about parents and students having the ability to choose schools, whether charter of public, that meet their needs.”
Those scheduled to attend the conference but did not show included Mayor Francis Slay, East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks, St. Louis School Superintendent Kelvin Adams and Teacher Union Local 420 president Mary Armstrong. Robin Wahby, Slay’s aide for education issues, represented him; Cummings substituted for Armstrong.
Other participants included Horace Sheffield, a minister from Detroit. The Action Network’s Chavis probably best summed up most of the group’s feelings when he said, “Charter schools are something we should be able to discuss without being defensive. We need to put our best minds together. It’s about what you're going to do to improve the quality of life of children in communities across the country.”