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Don’t meet me in St. Louis

In this photo made Friday, Oct. 23, 2015, the 630-foot-tall Gateway Arch rises above trees in St. Louis.  (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

St. Louis is a great city — but its public school system is deeply troubled, and as teacher Peter Greene writes below, its teachers are “at the epicenter of just about every kind of assault on public education going on these days.” Here, from Greene’s engaging Curmudgucation blog, is a primer on what has befallen the St. Louis public schools for years now. Greene is a veteran teacher of English in a small town in Pennsylvania, who writes about a wide range of education issues.

By Peter Greene

St. Louis teachers are currently 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 of course problematic because it would take $42,404 just to keep pave 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. 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 percent raise over a year and a half, with no prospect of advancing. (Also, just in case that’s not insulting enough, I just discovered that Missouri allows anyone to look up individual teacher salaries.)

You’ll be unshocked to learn that 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 they actually put together a group to study on the problem. It’s enough of a problem that a “non-profit” group is on the scene trying to help. Even Teach For America has been in St. Louis, but has not even met its own goals for putting its quickly trained teachers in St. Louis classrooms. And 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 $20,000 more to work there,  who wants to tell their children, “Sorry, no meat this week because I want to keep being noble.”

Meanwhile, there are folks who claim that 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 losing students rapidly. 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 30-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 2007, when 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 wanted to get their children out of a struggling public system and charters enthusiasts who smelled a market ripe for profit overseen by a charter-friendly mayor. The newspapers and city leaders don’t seem to like to mention it much, but on top of everything else, the 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 — even though the charter schools of St. Louis have not been anything to write home about. In fact 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 nearly a whopping half a billion (with-a-b) 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. And 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.” How does it affect to see this 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 a first year teacher for the rest of their career.