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Education

St. Louis Education Nonprofit, The Opportunity Trust, Has Plenty Of Skeptics

Eric Scroggins, founder of The Opportunity Trust, an education advocacy nonprofit in St. Louis that started in 2018.
Ryan Delaney
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Eric Scroggins returned to St. Louis after a 14-year career with Teach For America to found the Opportunity Trust. In its first three years, it's garnered lots of skeptics.

The Opportunity Trust has been involved in St. Louis’ fractured public education scene for about three years. In that time, its deep coffers and controversial priorities have stirred deep distrust and claims of a hidden agenda, especially from passionate supporters of traditional school districts.

The teachers union in St. Louis says the organization's founder, Eric Scroggins, is entwined with billionaires bent on privatizing public education. Former school board members similarly say the Opportunity Trust has brought an outside agenda to local education. And community activists claim it’s just an arm of a national movement to dismantle urban school districts.

Scroggins insists his organization simply has the mission of making sure every child has a chance to get into a great school and thrive.

“I believe in public education,” Scroggins said. “The whole entire point of our organization is to ensure that our public education system actually is responsive to kids and families.”

He’s quick to reference his own story, having grown up in a small town along the Mississippi River near Alton, Illinois. Scroggins attended Washington University, the first in his family to go to college. But, he said, public education didn't work for his two brothers, one of whom dropped out of high school.

“You can point to me to say, look, (public schools) work, and yeah, I can pull myself up by my bootstraps,” Scroggins said. “But the reality is, we actually have a system that isn't designed to support everyone’s success.”

He became a science teacher and then worked his way to being a top administrator with Teach For America. After 14 years with TFA, he returned to St. Louis in 2017 and launched the Opportunity Trust the next year.

Helping or hurting public schools?

The organization soon drew the ire of St. Louis Public Schools backers by supporting the opening of new charter schools and expanding successful ones, including City Garden Montessori. For supporters of SLPS, it is salt in the wound as the district undergoes a large consolidation and school closures.

“The Opportunity Trust doesn't share the objectives of SLPS, which is a high-quality public education system that supports all of our students in St. Louis, because they don't have the same interest,” said Ben Conover, a political organizer who helped form Solidarity with SLPS over the winter.

Solidarity with SLPS has no financial backers, Conover said, leaving it to rely on social media as it rallies support for the district and school board candidates. That’s in stark contrast to the Opportunity Trust and its large budget.

“I think that their goal is to get rid of public education, as we understand it, in terms of democratically elected school boards,” he said.

Scroggins counters that it's not about being anti-public schools, but rather about supporting different models of delivering education and governing schools, which could include boards that are not elected.

“I think there is no one answer,” he said. “But I think we do know that the current system as it's designed is not working. And actually the role of the Opportunity Trust is to be a part of those conversations to inform the change effort in St. Louis.”

The Opportunity Trust looks to back more innovation within existing schools. It’s done that so far through several programs, including educator fellowships and grants to community and parent advocacy groups.

For instance, WEPOWER, which is pushing SLPS to be more transparent in its budgeting process, has received at least $85,000 in grants from the Opportunity Trust. Yet a former employee of WEPOWER, Gloria Evans Nolan, said she grew disenchanted with the organization and left over concerns about its relationship with the Opportunity Trust.

In an essay on Medium, she said that during a conversation with Scroggins about her ideas for improving SLPS, he told her: “That won’t work. We have to burn it down,” referring to SLPS.

Scroggins denied making the comment but says he often speaks “emphatically and passionately about this work and about the real need for fundamental and transformational change in our systems.”

Nolan was unavailable for an interview for this story.

School partners

The Opportunity Trust has not partnered with SLPS, though Scroggins and other staff have had conversations with district administrators. Dorothy Rohde-Collins, who was president of St. Louis’ school board until last month, said after several meetings that she could never totally get behind the strategy.

“If I am running a school district and everything I do is public, and it should be and I believe in that, I can't partner with organizations that don't share those same ideals because this is public tax dollars,” she said.

A teacher works with students at City Garden Montessori in 2019, a high-performing charter school in St. Louis. The Opportunity Trust is funding a major expansion effort by City Garden.
File photo / Ryan Delaney
A teacher works with students at City Garden Montessori in 2019, a high-performing charter school in St. Louis. The Opportunity Trust is funding a major expansion effort by City Garden.

The Opportunity Trust has partnered with two districts in the St. Louis region. It gave University City’s school district a $175,000 grant in 2018 to support the development of a new strategic plan. It’s also helping to cover the cost of new reading and math curriculums in the Normandy school district.

Normandy’s new superintendent, Marcus Robinson, is a former Opportunity Trust employee. And that’s irked municipal leaders in that district, such as Beverly Hills Mayor Brian Jackson.

“They want to operate in a clandestine way,” Jackson said, “and they continue to do that. And we continue to push against that.”

Jackson is among several municipal leaders who were furious when they learned Robinson lacks full credentials to be superintendent, though he's working toward a doctorate. They also strongly oppose the new charter school that plans to open in Normandy, the Leadership School, whose founder Robinson advised while with the Opportunity Trust.

Officials with the Opportunity Trust say they’re not hiding a thing.

“Put simply, the Opportunity Trust is about great schools for all kids. And great schools can be in the form of charter schools, and they could come in the form of district-run neighborhood schools,” said Jesse Dixon, who oversees district and community partnerships for the organization.

“When we see an opportunity where there is a visionary superintendent, who wants to take bold steps on behalf of kids in that district based on evidence-based practices, we want to be supportive of those superintendents,” he added.

Leaders of schools that partnered with Opportunity Trust said they don't feel the funding comes with strings attached.

National funders raise questions

But not everyone is convinced. There’s suspicion about whether the Opportunity Trust is truly local or just an arm of a national group. Cities including Indianapolis, Denver and Memphis have organizations that advocate for similar things as the Opportunity Trust. “We share best practices, and we problem-solve together,” Scroggins said. “So we're certainly in community with other organizations that are doing similar work.”

But Tracee Miller, a former St. Louis school board member, went so far as to say the Opportunity Trust is not a Missouri organization.

The Opportunity Trust is an independent nonprofit registered in Missouri, and so it’s a charge Scroggins said has no basis.

“We were incorporated here in Missouri. We are funded mostly by major local philanthropic donors in St. Louis,” Scroggins said.

About a quarter of its funding, however, has come from a national organization that’s raised eyebrows. The Opportunity Trust raised a total of $6.3 million in 2019, according to tax filings. Of that, $1.7 million, came from the City Fund, which supports charter and more autonomous public schools in cities around the country.

The strategy is supposed to help low-income students, a 2020 profile by the education news site Chalkbeat reported, but it’s also been seen as an attempt to undermine teachers unions and elected school boards.

Sarah Reckhow, a Michigan State University professor who studies the influence of philanthropy on public education policy, said that while the Opportunity Trust and the City Fund are not formally linked, there are close ties.

“At a certain point you start to speculate and want to understand, how much are all these folks talking to each other, they sure have a lot of common threads,” she said. “And usually, there are some connections.”

Rohde-Collins, the former school board president, said she’d like the Opportunity Trust to be more transparent about its funding and objectives. She urged the state legislature to not include $2 million in the state budget for the Opportunity Trust “until we have a clear idea about what their goals are, and how they perform on those goals.” She added, “I didn't say never, ever, ever give them any money.”

The money was ultimately included in the budget. The Opportunity Trust has 10 lobbyists in the Capitol; SLPS has two.

While the Opportunity Trust hasn’t won many allies on St. Louis’ school board, Dixon said it's still open to partnering.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “that sort of a relationship needs to be built on trust.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Clarification: This story has been updated to better explain the Opportunity Trust's organizational structure. The Opportunity Trust is a Missouri-based nonprofit.

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