Let’s Build an Education System That Works for Everyone
Kids all over the City are back at school. So let’s talk about our kids. And about our City. And about our schools.
I’m the daughter of two teachers, and a product of public schools. I’m the chair of the Board of Aldermen’s Education and Youth Committee, and I hold both a Master’s degree and a PhD in Educational Leadership. I’m a policy wonk who thinks a lot about schools and children, and I don’t shy away from it.
But you don’t have to be a policy wonk to see the very practical impact our schools’ challenges have on St. Louis families.
As an Alderwoman I’ve seen it firsthand. I remember well a conversation I had after a ward meeting when a constituent pulled me aside to confess that, after looking for schooling options in the City, they felt forced to relocate to the County.
And that’s how they framed it. Forced.
Another family called me late at night to tearfully explain why they were moving away; their child needed services that they weren’t confident they could get through the St. Louis Public School system or at any other school in the city.
These families were leaving not just houses they adored and a neighborhood they built their lives in, but a City that they loved. They were leaving not because they wanted to, but because the City was no longer working for them. In fact, St. Louis City has lost 40% of its school aged population over the last 20 years.
Quality schools are not optional for a city. They’re essential. Without good quality education, we can’t have real equity, or a well-prepared workforce, or a city that’s truly working for everyone. To grow our city we need families to want to stay in the City.
City parents do have some choices, but these alternatives too often present their own challenges, including cost and a patchwork of admission requirements and standards. And families that don’t have the resources to learn about or pay for all of their options are often left behind, which just reinforces the have/have not structure in St. Louis.
That’s not a City that works for everyone.
There are plenty of historical reasons why many St. Louis public schools have lagged. Perhaps some of the most damaging has been the tendency of our public officials to rob the school district of revenue, using tax incentives to borrow from our children’s future years to incentivize developers today.
In case you’ve not heard of them before, TIFs and tax abatements are tax breaks that real estate developers get for years — sometimes 10, 15 or 23 years — to encourage them to build up properties in the City. The taxes that are not collected because of those tax incentives would have gone, mostly, to our public schools.
In the past, tax incentives were sponsored by Aldermen who proposed them for developments in their ward, often regardless of need. You might recall that the former President of the Board was indicted for accepting bribes in return for his support on real estate deals. Two of his closest Board allies were indicted for similar behavior and each will plead guilty this week.
The overuse of tax incentives is exactly what I’ve fought since being elected to the Board in 2014.
Not because I’m against development (I’m not). But because I’m against what has been a nonchalant willingness to borrow against our kids’ future. An over-abundance of tax incentives cost our school system millions of dollars a year.
If we want a City that works for everyone, we need to reinvest in our kids and families. That starts by reforming the broken tax incentive system. It’s long overdue.
We also need a City-wide plan for education that brings all educational entities operating in the City together, to explore the best way to improve our schools and expand services to all the kids in the City. Maybe that means expanding the County’s Special School District to the City; maybe there are other, better, options. But it’s not an option to continue to do nothing while kids languish and families move away.
The Ferguson Commission called us all to place our youth at the center of our decision making. That’s not what has always happened at the Board of Aldermen in the past.
With me as President of the Board of Aldermen, it will.