Relatively few St. Louis voters have children enrolled in the public schools. Only a few more St. Louis voters even have school age children. Over the past thirty years, tens of thousands of families, black and white, have left the City of St. Louis for the suburbs to pursue affordable, quality education for their children. They are still leaving today. They’ve left behind a City in which households of empty-nesters, young couples, and singles sharply outnumber families with kids.
It could have been worse. The parochial schools and the interdistrict transfer program have kept plenty of families in the City over the years. But, the parochial schools are being challenged as their costs rise out of reach for more families, and the interdistrict program is frozen and is being phased out.
And that’s a St. Louis problem. We will not really be a strong, vital city without families and children. We will never be a welcoming place for families and children without more good schools. And we will not be able to compete for more and better jobs without a larger, more skilled, and better prepared workforce.
Right now, for example, I am working on an initiative to connect 3,000 minority workers to jobs that pay decent wages. I am getting a strong pushback from some employers who worry that there are not enough minority workers who are workforce-ready. And their concerns are probably justified. The City’s personnel department recently conducted an entry level test for new City firefighters. The vast majority of African Americans who took the test failed it. What does this mean?
We cannot keep doing things the same way we’ve been doing them for the last three decades and expect a different result. We must do better for the sake of these kids and the sake of our City.
We know that there are some successful education programs out there. Teach for America, the Can Academies, and the KIPP schools are educational programs that work. Early Childhood and After School programs work. Some charter school programs (free public schools that are open to everyone) work - and I have recently invited educators from across the country to bring their best charter school ideas to St. Louis.
Every program in the paragraph above has made someone angry. People who do not even know me have attributed all sorts of motives to my support of such programs. In case you are wondering, here is what drives my thinking:
I value children over everything else - districts, systems, buildings, and politics. That’s why I support whatever works best and fastest. If that is quality charter schools and the interdistrict transfer program, great. If that is new private or parochial schools, great again. Right now, we have children in St. Louis schools who are not learning enough. Each day that goes by, they fall further and further behind. I am not willing to wait ten or fifteen years to fulfill the City’s promise of a quality public education for all of its kids. To say to these kids and their parents that we are going to leave them no choice but to go to an unaccredited school district in the un-quantified hope that a future generation will get a good education simply is not fair or just.
We have kids who need a quality public education today. We have young families whose presence in the City could be an important part of the next five years. We must give them more and better school choices right now - or they will move somewhere else, or never move here.
I have worked very hard as mayor to turn this City around. That has sometimes meant trying new ways to solve old problems. That has turned out to be the case with public education. The old ways aren’t working. I will do whatever it takes to improve the lives of children and the lives of families with children - even if it is attracts the criticism of those few people more invested in the structure of public education than in its outcomes.