A Better St. Louis. Powered by Journalism.
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Print
  • Email

Schools at top of mayoral candidates' list of issues

In Education

12:39 am on Fri, 02.08.13

The Democrats running for mayor in St. Louis may not agree on much, but they do have at least one thing in common:

They put education at the top of their list of issues that matter to them and, more importantly, to the city voters who will decide whether Francis Slay gets a fourth term at City Hall.

Slay, who faces challenges in next month’s Democratic primary from Lewis Reed, president of the Board of Aldermen, and former Alderman Jimmie Matthews, needs little prompting to talk about what he has accomplished for the city’s schoolchildren and what still needs to be done.


And Reed needs little prompting to challenge the mayor’s accomplishments in education during his 12 years in office.

During that time, the St. Louis Public Schools have been taken over by the state and put under control of an appointed three-member Special Administrative Board. Charged with improving academics, strengthening finances and stabilizing governance, the SAB scored a major victory last year when the state upgraded the district to provisional accreditation.

But the move did not lead to the return of an elected school board, and if projections from Missouri’s new method of rating school districts hold, the city schools might have a difficult time holding on to their new upgraded status.

During the same time that the state has been running the St. Louis Public Schools, the number of charter schools in the city increased, with an enrollment last fall of more than 8,400 students. But the growth did not come without problems, including the closing of failing charters such as the Imagine group of schools.

The voluntary interdistrict desegregation program, which allows African-American students in the city to transfer to selected districts in St. Louis County, continues and has been extended for another five years, to 2019. A fundamental change in the program, which would introduce a means test for families whose students want to transfer, has been introduced for discussion.

Another situation that could have profoundly affected the city and its school-age students, the so-called Turner case, remains in legal limbo. It concerns a state law that allows children who live in an unaccredited school district to transfer to nearby accredited districts, with their home district paying the tuition.

While the provisional accreditation status for the city schools has spared them from being subject to the law, at least for now, the possibility that they could lose accreditation under the new rating system keeps that potential cloud over the system’s finances.

At a court hearing last year, Superintendent Kelvin Adams testified that if the district had to pay for tuition and transportation of transferring students, it could not afford to function for the students who remained.

Against that backdrop, the Democratic candidates for mayor have been discussing what they will do to help students in the city get the best education they can, and how that education will in turn help the city prosper. Here is what they have to say.

Francis Slay

As he completes his third term and hopes for a fourth, Slay is quick to point out that he has no direct control over the St. Louis school system. Instead, he has used the bully pulpit of the mayor’s office to try to make the district’s schools better and help make sure that if families choose charter schools instead, those schools offer a top-quality education.

“Education is our most critical challenge and our most urgent challenge in the city of St. Louis,” Slay told the Beacon. “It underlies everything else we’re trying to achieve – safe neighborhoods, better opportunities for young people, attracting jobs, even race relations.

“This really gets to the core of us as a community, doing everything we can to make sure every child has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.”

Francis Slay
Francis Slay

Slay said he supported the state takeover of the city school system and has been encouraged by the steady progress the district has shown. To help, he said the city has partnered with the schools in areas like recreation programs and full-service schools to make sure that families have access to a full range of services.

He is glad that the system gained provisional accreditation, but he isn’t satisfied.

“Think about it,” Slay said. “If people think making some progress and getting provisional accreditation is a big win, they’re wrong. Accreditation isn’t the highest standard of excellence. It is the lowest level of quality we should expect. They haven’t reached that yet. They’re only halfway there.”

But, he added, he also wants to make sure that good charter schools are available to provide families a choice.

“We have to make sure we don’t put all our eggs in one basket,” Slay said. “We know there are not enough good schools. Too many kids who need education the most to succeed, particularly low-income kids, are not getting access to enough quality education options. So I launched an aggressive approach to establish quality – and I emphasize quality – charter schools.”

Slay and his education policy assistant, Robbyn Wahby, have actively worked with groups that want to start charter schools and put them together with willing sponsors and charter operators. So far, he said, his office has endorsed 20 charters, of which 15 are open, three more are set to open this fall and the other two are on deck.

“There are some real wins there,” he said, “in terms of quality education. It gives families a flexibility and a creativity they can’t get in the St. Louis Public Schools system.”

When that quality is not present, such as at the Imagine charters, Slay said he has not hesitated to call for the schools to shut down.

“I called for their closure,” he said. “That was controversial. There were some 3,000 kids out there that had no school to go to once they were closed. But we helped them get placed in St. Louis Public Schools and other quality schools.”

Slay said he is not interested in getting into the “food fight” of trying to gain mayoral control for the schools because he doesn’t want to prompt a controversy that shifts focus from children. What he would like, though, is the opportunity for the mayor’s office to sponsor charters, as the mayor of cities like Indianapolis can, to make sure kids have enough good options.

He emphasized that establishing and maintaining good schools are not just about education but the future of the city itself. He noted that lots of college-educated people think St. Louis is a great place to live, but once they become parents, they start to look elsewhere.

“We know that in the last census, we can attribute the net loss of population to a loss of families with children,” Slay said. “We had more people moving into the city than anyplace else, but we also had more people moving out of the city than anyplace else.

“We have to make sure that families have good quality education options to make sure they stay in the city. They have everything but schools.”

Slay himself sent his two children to parochial schools, the same system that he attended in the city.

“Like any parent,” he said, “I want to make sure I send my children to the best quality schools. I did, and I was fortunate enough to be able to afford it. They’re doing well. I think every parent should have that same opportunity.”

Lewis Reed

Reed’s campaign has had a heavy emphasis on public safety, but he says if he had to rank the importance of issues in his race to unseat Slay, he would put education at No. 1 and crime at No. 2.

What would be the best use of his talents at City Hall in terms of improving the options for city students?

“The mayor can provide direction,” Reed said. “He begins to establish how people feel about the school system.”

Reed also believes that the mayor can "provide the direction necessary to support our public school system to becoming a top-notch institution.  This will be a daily endeavor, most of which would happen away from photo ops and press conferences.  It will involve asking everyone that the mayor’s office interacts with what they think they can do to improve the education situation for our children." 

And, he says, Slay is leading in the wrong direction.

Lewis Reed
Lewis Reed

“If you ever watch any of his interviews,” he said, “he never has anything positive to say about the St. Louis Public Schools. He talks about how we need to move to charter schools.

“Recently he has begun to talk positively about the school system, but I think where he continues to miss the boat is the fact that when people look at other options, and determining where they want to live, from the city of St. Louis you can be in a new school district in 15 minutes. It’s not a very difficult choice to go to a new school district.”

Reed said he doesn’t think the mayor would need to have direct control of the city school system to bring out improvements, and he certainly doesn’t think Slay could make the schools better if he took over.

“Just look at what he has direct control of now,” he said. “You can go down the list, issue after issue after issue. I don’t see how we could handle the school system, too.”

But, he said, the mayor’s office, could highlight the positive accomplishments of the city school system and push for mandatory pre-school. He wants to see more recreational and sports programs for children as well, to channel their energies into positive activities.

On charter schools, Reed said:

“Charter schools are a good second choice, but there is a difference in the way I view charter schools and the way Francis Slay views charter schools. He views them as a replacement of the public schools, and that’s a mistake. I don’t think they in any way, shape or form should be viewed as a replacement.

“We have had failed charter schools and failed oversight of those schools. I think they need to be part of the educational choice picture, but not to the point where we are working to make sure they are replacement schools. Charter schools, in and of themselves, will never be a solution for what we see in terms of parents making a decision to go someplace else. We could have the best charter schools in the nation and still lose population.”

Reed said that before the leadership of the city schools system reverts to an elected board from the appointed SAB, he wants to see the system achieve full accreditation.

“I think that now that the turmoil of the change is over with,” he said, “we should stay the course until they complete some of the work and the plans they have been working on.”

As far as the future of the desegregation plan goes, he thinks it should only end “when our school system is truly performing. I think that we will naturally outgrow it. I wouldn’t even venture to guess on that. But people need to look at how far we have come in terms of turning the system around. I think everybody is encouraged that the system is on the right track now.”

He said that his two children with his first wife went to public schools in Florissant, where she lives. His two younger children have attended both public and charter schools.

“It’s not like we felt the public schools were bad or anything,” Reed said. “They had a great education at Gateway. But when we looked at St. Louis Charter, we saw there were fewer students there and they had an opportunity to be in smaller classes. That’s what my wife wanted for them, a smaller school experience.”

Jimmie Matthews

Asked about his education priorities, Matthews, who is a retired teacher, called a lack of discipline the biggest problem in schools today. He wants programs to teach students better listening skills and a stronger sense of morality to set a better tone.

Jimmie Matthews
Jimmie Matthews

He said that the SAB in charge of the city schools “seems to be selling off the schools’ assets to charter schools. They are depleting the resources the schools need to be successful.”

He added that “charter schools are about corporate America taking over the public school sector. They want to make a profit.”

Matthews would like to see more vocational education, to give students the skills they need for jobs.

“You can’t just try to get kids to go to college,” he said. “They have to train to get a job and work their way through college. That’s what I did.”

As far as the desegregation program goes, Matthews said that he would like to see children go to schools that are closer to where they live.

“You need to create a social network where students go to schools in their neighborhoods,” he said.

No Comments

Join The Beacon

When you register with the Beacon, you can save your searches as news alerts, rsvp for events, manage your donations and receive news and updates from the Beacon team.

Register Now

Already a Member

Getting around the new site

Take a look at our tutorials to help you get the hang of the new site.

Most Discussed Articles By Beacon Members

Conference of American nuns will mull response to Vatican charges

In Nation

7:55 am on Fri, 08.03.12

Meeting in St. Louis next week, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious will have its first opportunity as an assembled group to consider what to do after the Vatican issued a mandate for change this spring. It calls on the conference to reorganize and more strictly observe church teachings.

The 'free' Zoo

In Commentary

7:51 am on Tue, 05.22.12

When a family of four goes to the St. Louis Zoo, they can be forgiven for not knowing it will cost them $60, $72 if they park. If they can't pay, the alternative is to tell the kids they can't do what kids do at the zoo.

Featured Articles

House sends Boeing incentive bill to Nixon

In Economy

12:55 pm on Fri, 12.06.13

The Missouri House easily passed legislation aimed at attracting production of the 777x, a move that wraps up a legislative special session that saw little suspense and few surprises. The bill now goes to Gov. Jay Nixon, who has strongly supported the legislation.

Gandhi inspired Mandela on South Africa's 'Long Road to Freedom'

In World

10:10 am on Fri, 12.06.13

Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95, was a towering moral figure of the 20th century -- along with Mahatma Gandhi. It was no coincidence that Gandhi and Mandela, whose paths never crossed directly, both embarked on their campaigns against discrimination in South Africa. It was when Mandela won election as South Africa’s first black president that Gandhi's influence became apparent.

Featured Articles

Regina Carter brings jazz and therapy to Children's Hospital

6:36 am on Mon, 12.09.13

One night, the violinist is taking bows before a standing ovation at Jazz at the Bistro. The next afternoon, some of her audience may have trouble standing, but the kids in the playroom at Children's Hospital were no less appreciative. “Jazz is medicine personified," according to a doctor who brings in the jazz musicians.

Encore: Dead before death

In Performing Arts

12:58 am on Fri, 12.06.13

For years , the author was certain he would never come to appreciate The Grateful Dead, let alone be a Deadhead. But little by little, he's come around. He talks about his conversion and relates a real evolution: by a musician who went on to play with the Schwag, a Dead cover band.

Featured Articles

Schlichter honored with St. Louis Award

In Region

4:57 pm on Tue, 12.03.13

The attorney has founded Arch Grants, which brings together nonprofit philanthropy and commercially viable opportunitiesto fund new business startups, and Mentor St. Louis, which finds adult mentors for elementary students in the St. Louis Public School System. He was the driving force behind the state's historic tax credit program.

BioGenerator sets open house to celebrate new digs for entrepreneurs-in-residence

In InnovationSTL

12:29 pm on Tue, 11.12.13

BioSTL's BioGenerator organization is on the move as its entrepreneurs-in-residence find a new home in 4,300 square feet of office and conference space in an old automobile factory. The blossoming program, which helps BioGenerator's portfolio companies to get off the ground, continues to pay dividends within the growing biotech community.

Ambassadors aim to soften rough landing for St. Louis immigrants

In InnovationSTL

6:34 am on Fri, 11.08.13

The St. Louis Mosaic Project is set to hold an orientation for its new ambassadors -- dozens of foreign and native-born volunteers who aim to help make the community a more welcoming place for those from other nations. Participants will be expected to do everything from visiting local restaurants serving international cuisine to having dinner with an immigrant to the area.

Recent Articles

More Articles

Innovation and entrepreneurial activity are on the rise in St. Louis, especially in bioscience, technology and alternative energy. The Beacon's InnovationSTL section focuses on the people who are part of this wave, what they're doing and how this is shaping our future. To many St. Louisans, this wave is not yet visible. InnovationSTL aims to change that. We welcome you to share your knowledge, learn more about this vibrant trend and discuss its impact.

Featured Articles

Regina Carter brings jazz and therapy to Children's Hospital

6:36 am on Mon, 12.09.13

One night, the violinist is taking bows before a standing ovation at Jazz at the Bistro. The next afternoon, some of her audience may have trouble standing, but the kids in the playroom at Children's Hospital were no less appreciative. “Jazz is medicine personified," according to a doctor who brings in the jazz musicians.

Featured Articles

Featured Events:

Upcoming Events

View Full Calendar

More About The Beacon Home