Struggling Saint Louis Public Schools sues state to halt opening of hoped-for charter school

St. Louis, Missouri’s public school district has filed a lawsuit against the state to stop the opening of a state-approved, public charter school.

Critics of the suit contend that Saint Louis…

St. Louis, Missouri’s public school district has filed a lawsuit against the state to stop the opening of a state-approved, public charter school.

Critics of the suit contend that Saint Louis Public Schools (SLPS), which has been one of the nation’s most poorly performing districts for decades, is just afraid of the competition.

SLPS is claiming the charter failed to notify the district’s Board of Education prior to seeking approval from the state.

“State Law requires that new charter school applicants provide the local school board timely notice of the application to allow the school board to review the application and, if appropriate, file objections with the proposed sponsor and the State Board of Education,” said SLPS attorneys, according to the lawsuit.

Failure to exactly follow that procedure, however, didn’t necessitate a lawsuit, one critic told The Lion.

There are provisions under Missouri statutes for filing complaints with the state board of education, even when a charter is approved, according to a review of the statutes by The Lion.   

“It’s such a distraction that it’s sickening,” Chester Asher, founder of Coalition with STL Kids, a parental group seeking education reform in the city, told The Lion. “It’s just a PR move to put a feather in their cap.” 

Asher contends that SLPS was notified, noting that the school board had members in attendance at the state hearing that eventually approved the charter school. 

“If they didn’t know about this charter school, how did they have people at that hearing?” he asked.  

The real issue, he said, is that SLPS doesn’t want any competition.  

“There are too many schools in St. Louis right now,” said the SLPS board president, according Susan Pendergrass, director of education policy at the Show Me Institute. 

It’s not the number of schools in St. Louis that’s at issue, Pendergrass maintains. It’s the poor quality of the district’s schools. 

“In the spring 2022 assessments, just 13.4 percent of the students in St. Louis’s traditional public schools scored on grade level in math, and 20 percent did so in reading,” wrote Pendergrass. “The average St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) ACT scores have fallen from 16.3 in 2019 to just 15.7 in 2022. Enrollment is dropping and chronic absenteeism is on the rise. The district is failing its high school students.”   

Indeed, the Missouri Independent called SPLS “One of the nation’s most troubled districts even before COVID.”  

It’s a failure that especially resonates in the black community, which has been disproportionately affected by the district’s failures, said some parents.  

“This is not a new issue with SLPS. You’re talking about literally decades of failure, decades of just devastation for the black community,” Asher told local KSDK News 5 NBC.  

That’s why the lawsuit is especially disheartening, said Pendergrass. 

The proposed charter school, called Believe STL, is modeled on a charter school in Indianapolis that’s achieved significant results for “historically underestimated youth.” 

“BCC has achieved dramatic results, such as having 30 percent of its students pass a college-level Advanced Placement exam, spurring dramatic growth in the SAT scores of its students, and having extremely high (92 percent) average daily attendance,” said Pendergrass.  

Asher is especially concerned by how the low literacy rates at SLPS schools affect black students later in life. 

“So many times, you’re judged by your writing, your resume, a cover letter. If you can’t do that, your life choices are immediately reduced. I think a lot of it leads to these statistics that we see in terms of incarceration rates, in terms of poverty, in terms of housing and homelessness. This is real life, this is real stuff,” he told KSDK.  

Pendergrass said that the Believe STL school, which has already been approved by the state, is specifically designed to help students become successful adults.  

She said SLPS shouldn’t be blocking the opening of new charter schools simply because the district can’t attract students to its failing, empty schools.  

“Blocking charter schools, especially those with proven track records, is akin to trapping children on a sinking ship. Shouldn’t we instead be building a system of schools that best serves as many students as possible?” asked Pendergrass.