Friday, November 20, 2015

St. Louis Schools Continue To Crumble

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% 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 TFA has been in St. Louis, but has not even met its own goals for putting faux 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 $20K more to work there-- well, who wants to tell their own 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 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 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 charteristas 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. This even though the charter schools of St. Louis have not been anything to write home about, either; 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 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.


  1. Two unrelated questions:

    1. What exactly does it mean to say that striking is "illegal"? What can happen if people choose to strike anyway? Jail? Loss of license? Just curious. (Also curious how it's even Constitutional to outlaw striking, but that's a different matter, I suppose.)

    2. I keep hearing about more and more cities that are hemorrhaging residents, especially black residents. Has any research been done to figure out where these people are going? I know in Chicago a handful of inner suburbs have seen an uptick in population, but I don't think these places account for all of Chicago's black population loss. I'm guessing other cities are similar. Is there some sort of reverse Great Migration going on? Or, worse, is the country simply losing black population? How is this not being considered racial "cleansing"?

    1. I was so grateful for Peter's post about this.....I wondered about the white flight part...I studied the census reports from st. louis and chicago 2000 and 2010....I found that of 29,000 who left st. louis, more than ten thousand were children, and so many schools were closed in poor areas of the city, I assumed it was a lot of low income people who left....and wondered if they quietly feel good about improving demographics by the negativity towards public schools.....Chicago is even more exaggerated.....they had a minus 200,000, with 205,000 being children.

  2. Dienne, in 1973, the St. Louis teachers went on strike despite the Missouri law that states teachers don't have the right to strike. The district went to court and the court issued an injunction against the teacher's union, ordering it to end the strike. The union leadership stated that out would defy the order and continue to strike. The court issued a finding of contempt, The union was fined $515,000, plus its president was fined $5,800 and sentenced to jail for 60 days. Meanwhile, an agreement was reached in negotiations. However, the district later took it to court, claiming that the agreement was not freely made--it was clear that the teachers would remain out on strike (illegally) until an agreement was reached. The court agreed with the district and voided the agreement. So, the strike accomplished nothingnexcept a large fine and jail time. Since this happened over 40 years ago, you can imagine how high the fine would be if a strike happens now.

  3. We do know where those students are going. Many have moved from St. Louis City to the communities in St. Louis County--Ferguson-Florissant, Normandy (the only fully UNaccredited district in Missouri), and similar communities--some do provide better educational opportunities. Some move into western Illinois to communities like East St. Louis and Belleville. Many districts, like the parts of St. Louis these students came from, are high-poverty areas. I don't see it as "racial cleansing," but rather a city that is actually crumbling. We have lost many corporations (and therefore jobs) in the past 3 decades. The city is in a declining spiral.

  4. Teacher pay has been frozen in my district, too. But did you know that if you leave for a year and return, you will be paid for your experience? Fun little quirk. They want people to leave.

  5. As I understand it, Missouri is set to require VAM beginning next year. That should be the final nail in the coffin of all the under-resourced urban districts. What will we get in return ? I'm guessing low-functioning charters that make money at the expense of urban kids -- and more layers of bureaucratic and political spin about "performance". The fact is we know how to create great schools, even in urban areas -- provide the resources to hire, support and retain the best staff possible, do NOT use VAM on them, or otherwise make it much more difficult for them to do their jobs, and make sure all administrators have sufficient experience as classroom teachers (hint: it's more than 2-3 years) that they can actually support and lead. The problem is that this is not what the establishment wants. Education in urban areas costs more, not less, but in places like St. Louis, less is what you get.

    1. Julie,

      I would say the final nail in the coffin was when one quarter of the Normandy School District's students left the district when they were given the opportunity to go to a district 30 miles away. When the state tried to stuff them back into the district by making it non-accredited, those families sued to keep their children in the far away school district.

  6. Here's the state of TN & Mr. Michelle Rhee & Duncan's BFF, Kevin Huffman's show of teacher contempt:
    Salary scale:
    Base, 30,420
    Years of experience w/ BS degree
    1 - 5 Base + $570
    6 - 10 Base + $3190
    11 - 15 Base + $6585
    Years of Experience w/ Masters
    1 - 5 Base + $3415
    6 - 10 Base + $7030
    11 - 15 Base + $10,890

  7. You can pretty much exchange "St. Louis" with "Detroit" and the rest of the story stays exactly the same. Except that our white flight took place more than thirty years ago. There are teachers in our building with 5 or 6 years of experience and a Master's who are earning around $33,000.
    Shameful shit...