The Destruction of St. Louis' Schools

St. Louis teachers are caught at the epicenter of just about every kind of assault on public education going on these days. Their immediate concern is easy enough to spot. St. Louis teachers have remained frozen in time, sitting on the same step of the salary schedule for six years. In other words, if you were hired as a first-year teacher for St. Louis schools back in 2009, you are still making a first-year teacher's salary today.

The school district's salary schedule shows that the steps have been adjusted once in that time span. So if you started in 2009 at $38,250, you're now making $39,270. This is problematic because it would take $42,404 just to keep pace with inflation. Meanwhile, as of two years ago, the mean wage for an elementary teacher in Missouri was $48,460. The union did reject the offer, but there's not much more they can do, as teacher strikes are illegal in Missouri.

So St. Louis teachers have been taking an inflation-created pay cut every year, along with the added insult of remaining in the same place on the salary scale. The district has offered a 3.5% raise over a year and a half, with no prospect of advancing. 

St. Louis teachers have been heading out the door in record numbers, in many cases within their very first week of school. This is not just a St. Louis thing: Missouri has been battling an inability to attract and retain teachers for years, to the point that it actually put together a group to study the problem. It's enough of a problem that a "non-profit" group is on the scene trying to help. Even TFA has been in St. Louis, but has not even met its own goals for putting faux teachers in St. Louis classrooms.

While there's no reason to think that St. Louis teachers are mercenary and money-grubbing, when you are having trouble feeding your family and another district will offer you over $20K more to work there—well, who wants to tell their own children, "Sorry, no lunches this week because I want to keep being noble."

Meanwhile, there are those who claim St. Louis schools are extra tough because of discipline problems, and there is clearly some sort of problem with the administration of discipline in Missouri school. A report released last spring shows that Missouri suspends African-American youths at a higher rate than any other state in the nation.

Other problems? St. Louis schools are rapidly losing students—the district is down another 1,500 this year.

But the school system's population problems are part of the city's problems, and the city's problems include white flight. St. Louis is discredited with "the highest thirty-year rate of building and neighborhood abandonment in North American history." The 2010 census revealed a loss of 29,000 residents since the previous head count.

Schools have been standing empty, and the public system has been in trouble going back to at least 2007when the state stripped it of its accreditation and took it over, stripping local control from the elected school board. The school district is run by a three-person Special Administrative Board; they hire the superintendent and are themselves political appointees. 

This big bunch of troubles has made St. Louis a prime target for charters, a confluence of sincerely concerned parents who want to get their children out of a struggling public system and charteristas who smelled a market ripe for profit overseen by a charter-friendly mayor. The newspapers and city leaders don't like to mention it much, but on top of everything else, St. Louis schools suffer from the charter effect: students leave for charters, but there is no proportionate lessening of expenses in the schools they leave, and so they leave many students behind in an already troubled public school that now has that much less money with which to work. 

And so last spring, charters were predicting a banner year with great enrollment. This even though the charter schools of St. Louis have not been anything to write home about; at one point the city shut down the chain of six Imagine Charters (containing a third of the city's charter students) for academic failure and financial shadiness.

Meanwhile, Missouri is one of those magical states where the government has a funding formula in place—which it simply ignores. At the beginning of 2015, Missouri schools were being underfunded by a whopping nearly half a billion dollars.

St. Louis Schools have suffered from the financial drain of a plummeting population as well as being financially hollowed out by a series of mostly failed charter experiments. The end result is that St. Louis can't figure out how to pay the teachers it has or attract the additional teachers it needs.

I don't know how you compute the effects of a situation like this. How does it affect students to be in a classroom with a teacher who is exhausted from working a second job and stressed because she doesn't know how she's going to pay her own bills? How does it affect students to see one more teacher say, "I'm sorry, but I can't stay here"? This is piled on top of the experience of watching your neighborhood empty out because the white folks don't want to live on the same block as your family. 

How the state can get involved in a district like St. Louis and not take the basic steps to pump in the necessary resources is a mystery. This is like coming upon a table of starving children and declaring, "Clearly what's needed here is for these children to learn to set the table properly."

What the children of St. Louis need are quality teachers in well-maintained facilities. Leaders and politicians can shrug and hope that a magic fairy fixes things, or they can figure out how to do what needs to be done. In the meantime, St. Louis teachers face hard choices, tight wallets and the prospect, in some cases, of being first-year teachers for the rest of their careers.

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