A $50 Million Lawsuit Has St. Louis Parents, Kids and Educators Worried Their Schools May Have to Close

John House’s oldest child was in fifth grade when a man showed up at his immaculate brick bungalow to talk about a middle school he was opening. The visitor said the school, the first St. Louis outpost of the national KIPP network, would set high standards for students and teachers alike, right out of the gate.

For years, House had struggled to find good schools for his three children: a daughter, who is now in 12th grade, and two boys, in sixth and third grades. The options in his north St. Louis neighborhood — a tidy working-class community in a quadrant of the city where abandoned buildings are common and the crime rate is high — were terrible.

House had done his homework. He knew his kids’ best chance for academic success was from him to snare seats in one of the district’s popular magnet schools or to get them into a program where they would be bused to a wealthy suburb.

Year after year, though, the children ended up on waiting lists. House enrolled his oldest daughter in a struggling charter school and her siblings in a nearby district school, trying to compensate for the poor quality by becoming as involved as possible in his kids’ education.

Now, House’s visitor was describing a KIPP school where everyone — parents, students and teachers — would do whatever it took to ensure high academic achievement. The school day would be longer, and so would the academic year. Good conduct would be emphasized.

“It mirrored what we do at home and what we want for our kids,” said House. “In St. Louis public schools, you don’t have the accountability for teachers. You don’t have the high expectations for students.”

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In the seven years since KIPP Inspire opened, its students have flourished. “The conversation is college at home, and the conversation is college at school,” said House. “It’s embedded. That’s what the expectation is. That changes lives. That changes the community.”

It was a shock to House and other KIPP parents, then, when the St. Louis district filed a school funding lawsuit that has the potential to shutter the school. The district asked a federal judge in April to rule that charter schools aren’t entitled to a portion of a special sales tax that was created under a 1999 Desegregation Settlement Agreement to promote integration — and to order the 35 independent public schools, which enroll some 10,500 students, to return 10 years’ worth of revenue. The total: approximately $50 million.

In July, the judge denied a request by charter school parents to become parties to the lawsuit so they could argue for the preservation of their schools. The families, the judge ruled, could cite only “nebulous injuries that might occur” as a result of the case moving forward.

Astounded that anyone could dismiss the possible loss of high-performing schools as a “nebulous injury,” the parents have appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. The appeal could stretch on for months, leaving the families in limbo.

“When that happens and you close the doors on those schools, you’re taking the choice away from those children,” said House. “You’re forcing them to be where they don’t want to be. You’re actually going backward.”

A 44-year saga

The St. Louis funding fight comes at a time when the legitimacy of charter schools is being challenged in courts throughout the country. In Mississippi, the Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a suit claiming that money is being illegally diverted from traditional schools to fund charters. A similar theory is at play in a lawsuit just filed in Washington State, where legal challenges to a handful of charters have ground on for years. In Minnesota, a lawsuit asserts that charter schools and parental choice have promoted segregation.

Charter schools have come under political fire as well over their funding formulas: State aid that would normally follow a student to a traditional district-run school goes instead to charters, which are independently run but publicly funded, when students enroll there.

Teachers unions are campaigning hard to depict this as starving public education by transferring tax dollars to private entities. Charter proponents and families like the Houses, by contrast, don’t see state aid as belonging to the districts or being guaranteed to their employees. The money, they say, is there for the education of a community’s children, and parents should be able to decide which school is best for their child.

Unlike the other lawsuits, the St. Louis case has historical roots that predate the charter school movement. In 1972, five frustrated black parents, led by a woman named Minnie Liddell, filed a federal suit claiming that the local school board and the state government had not taken sufficient action to end school segregation.

A 1983 settlement in that case created what has long been considered the most ambitious integration effort in the nation. Tens of thousands of St. Louis students of color were bused to schools in 15 other districts within St. Louis County. White students living in the county could attend magnet schools in the city, though far fewer did.

While academic outcomes were mixed, the program was popular. In 1998, with court oversight coming to an end, the Missouri legislature passed a bill that would allow its most successful components — cross-district busing and magnet schools — to continue using a combination of state financing and the St. Louis sales tax.

The same bill created Missouri’s first charter schools, which the state allows only in St. Louis and Kansas City. At the time, those cities were losing families at an alarming rate: Between 2000 and 2007, St. Louis lost 29,000 residents, 75 percent of them school-aged.

Without middle-class families, Mayor Francis Slay was convinced, the economic dominoes would tumble. People might drive into the city for work or a ball game, but they’d spend their money and pay their property taxes in the suburbs. Poor outcomes at the traditional district schools and the first public charters, opened in the early 2000s, would do nothing to halt the exodus.

After a few years of trying to prod education leaders behind the scenes, Slay decided to throw his political capital into pushing for high-quality schools that he believed would keep people in the city. In 2007, he began meeting with community leaders, telling them he was going to urge all St. Louis schools to do better, regardless of who “owned” them.

At the time, the St. Louis public schools were in free fall. Citing abysmal student achievement, a $90 million budget shortfall and unstable leadership, the state took away the district’s accreditation — which, in Missouri, controls its authority to operate independently. Slay lobbied successfully for control of one of the three seats on the Special Administrative Board that took over.

He also asked for legal power to authorize charter schools. Lawmakers said no, but Slay decided to play as big a role as he could. He began recruiting charter networks that were successful in other urban districts and set up a review committee to screen their applications for quality.

The schools still needed to find authorizers to sponsor them, but passing muster with Slay’s committee would mean the support of City Hall. The mayor himself would persuade churches and other entities to lease or sell buildings to the new schools, solving an issue that is a perennial headache for charter school leaders everywhere.

The city’s various departments would make sure the schools were at the center of their plans. Economic planners, for instance, would ensure that developers, housing authorities, small-business incubators and other agencies worked together to shape the neighborhoods that were home to the new schools.

Slay also pushed for the closure of bad charters. In 2012, the shutdown of the Imagine schools, run by a for-profit company in Virginia, put the charter sector on notice: Subpar performance year after year would no longer be tolerated.

Both charter and district schools started to show gains. Under the guidance of a widely admired superintendent, Kelvin Adams, many district schools have shown dramatic improvement in recent years. Half now meet the state’s threshold for achievement.

In 2013, Slay commissioned research that found that enrollment in all St. Louis schools had risen 5 percent since his committee began its work. It was the first uptick in some 50 years.

Academic performance increased, too. According to the state’s school rating system, the number of students in good schools has doubled since 2008, and the number in high-quality classrooms has increased to one third of the city’s 30,000 pupils.

Today, the city’s 35 charter schools serve 10,500 students, or 30 percent of St. Louis’s school-age population, up from 15 percent eight years ago. Some 82 percent of charter school students live in poverty, and 70 percent are African-American.

“When these good schools go into neighborhoods, they become magnets,” said Slay. “In some cases, people move back from the suburbs to enroll their kids.”

When legal maneuvering destabilizes schools

When City Garden opened in 2007, the founders of the K-8 charter school intentionally picked a location in a racially divided area. Within its attendance zone, 60 percent of the residents were black and 40 percent white; 60 percent of households earned $40,000 or less a year, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Every year, the program posted strong academic gains. By 2012, City Garden had scored 100 percent on the state’s rating system, on par with the state’s most elite districts. By comparison, St. Louis public schools scored 22.5 percent. As news of City Garden’s success spread, school leaders began fielding inquiries from wealthy families outside the city.

Parents wanted it to remain a community school, though, so they took advantage of a law that allows charter schools to create enrollment, or catchment, zones. Families that wanted a chance to enroll had to move to the neighborhood. A number returned from the suburbs.

Poverty rates have ticked down, as new houses go up and old ones are renovated. Today, the area boasts a mix of upscale and affordable housing, brew pubs and bakeries, and a ritzy-sounding name — Botanical Heights. Researchers at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Washington University in St. Louis said the school’s success was a “major benefit” in “enhancing the neighborhood’s new brand as a walkable, sustainable, family-friendly area.”

“Quality schools attract families,” said Slay. “You can see the vibrancy. They’re keeping all kinds of families in the neighborhood.”

That same dynamic is playing out in downtown St. Louis, another zone that middle-class parents typically abandon when their kids reach school age. The area is also extremely segregated, with student populations in district schools virtually entirely black.

When Lafayette Preparatory Academy opened in downtown in 2013, the school’s founders intentionally created an enrollment zone that consists of four affluent neighborhoods and one dominated by low-income housing. The school can’t set admissions quotas, but it began with a goal of having a student body that is 50 percent African-American.

“Obviously, if we are going to meet that goal, we would have to be attracting families from the suburbs and we would have to hold onto our young families,” said Paul Brown, an attorney who serves on the boards of both Lafayette and the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis. “We have an intentionally diverse school that is integrating public education in St. Louis.”

It is also stanching the exodus of young families and shoring up downtown’s residential population, added Missy Kelley, president and CEO of Downtown St. Louis. The number of people living downtown rose 7 percent last year, she said.

“The more people we have on the streets going in and out of shops and restaurants, the more you increase safety and the perception of safety,” said Kelley. “People want to live down here. They want the walkable environment.”

Slay has been emphatic in calling for the district to drop its lawsuit. He fears that the financial hardships that will result if the suit succeeds will devastate the schools he worked so hard to promote.

But more immediately, he worries that parents, unsure what the future holds for the children’s schools, will make the safe bet and head for the suburbs.

“This lawsuit by itself is creating instability for the schools, for the parents,” he said. “They don’t want to send their kids to a school that might close.”

‘There can’t be turf wars’

Graduation speeches are always emotional, but the commencement address Slay delivered to this year’s graduating class at Gateway Science Academy High School was especially meaningful.

The mayor had persuaded the Archdiocese of St. Louis to rent the public charter school’s elementary grades the building that once housed Slay’s own alma mater, the former Epiphany of Our Lord School. When he attended Epiphany of Our Lord, there were 1,000 students. When the parochial school closed in 2010, there were 120.

As Gateway’s students grew up, Slay pushed for the school’s expansion; now, it was time to congratulate its first-ever graduates. As he prepared to speak, Slay scribbled a few more lines in the margins of his paper and underlined passages for emphasis.

“You are high-achieving,” he told the graduating seniors. “You have completed the curriculum of a premier city high school — in fact, one of the highest-performing high schools in Missouri. One hundred percent of you have been accepted to four-year universities. You have accumulated $1.3 million in scholarships. And that number is growing.”

Gateway had been as successful as Slay, who steps down at the end of the year after four terms, had hoped. The moment should have marked the culmination of his life’s work. But instead, a new, daunting chapter is opening.

“Everyone should be working together for one goal,” Slay said. “Everyone benefits by the existence of a quality school, no matter what you call it. That should be the focus. There can’t be turf wars over this.

“The public schools should drop [the suit],” he continued. “Are you telling me that you guys can’t compete? That your success model is that you can’t compete with quality charters in this city?”

Defining the ‘Integration Tax’

It’s not entirely clear that the suit’s intent is to eliminate or hobble the competition. In April, when St. Louis Public Schools filed its motion, the Special Administrative Board released a statement.

“The legal action being taken has been characterized in the press and on social media as a dispute between SLPS and charter schools,” it stated. “Simply stated, that is not the case. The district’s stance on partnerships and relationships with charter schools remains unchanged. We remain focused on creating great options for the young people of our community.”

Beyond that, a spokesman for the district declined to comment on pending litigation.

Adolphus Pruitt is president of the St. Louis City NAACP, which, along with the district, is one of the parties asking the judge to order the return of the integration funds. The plaintiffs claim that by sending a portion of the tax revenue to schools other than those run by St. Louis Public Schools, the state violated the 1999 Desegregation Settlement Agreement.

“It’s not about charters,” said Pruitt. “It’s about making sure the state keeps its promise.”

To create the so-called integration tax, state and city officials drafted several documents, including a bill passed by the state legislature and a ballot question put before voters in 1999. The language describing the use of the money varies from one document to another and will likely be the topic of intense arguments as the court case goes forward.

For the first few years after the tax was enacted, St. Louis charter schools got their funding directly from the district. In 2006, Missouri law was changed to make each charter school a district unto itself. The state then began sending a share of the sales tax to each program along with state aid.

St. Louis Public Schools discovered the change in 2008 and demanded that the state stop the practice. State officials, however, insisted they were following the terms of the 1999 settlement. In January, the district asked a final time. In April, the plaintiffs sued.

Pruitt disagrees with the state’s interpretation. The sales tax revenue, he said, was supposed to pay desegregation costs to the district that the state had stopped covering. St. Louis Public Schools, he added, has to pay for programs aimed at eliminating racial disparities in outcomes for children of color regardless of the city’s fiscal health.

In addition, he said, the district has to pay for initiatives aimed at creating equity and promoting integration whether charter schools exist or not; if the state wants charter schools to engage in similar activities, it should find other funds.

“We’re not going to be held to our end of the agreement if the state won’t keep its end up,” Pruitt said. “The court’s position was that the school district has to improve, has an obligation to provide the same kind of education [students] would get in a district that was integrated.”

If the appeals court rules that charter school parents do have a stake in the outcome — a decision that might be months away — those parents are prepared to argue that whichever of the hotly disputed readings of the settlement is correct, the goal should be to use the sales tax to pay for the equitable education that St. Louis’s African-American and Latino students deserve.

For his part, House would like the community’s focus to be returned to the vow made by the school leader who called on him eight years ago: that everyone, young people and adults alike, would do whatever it takes to make every child successful.

“At the end of the day,” said House, “we all want what’s best for our children.”

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