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What does public education mean? Are charter schools public? Why do charter schools exist? How do we fix the system in a community like the 24:1 footprint?

Questions like these were on everyone’s mind on Wednesday, Jan. 27, at the second “Not Without Us” education town hall, hosted by the 24:1 Municipal Partnership.

An audience of 100 viewers tuned in on Zoom and FB Live to continued the discussion about the education crisis in the 24:1 footprint that started at the first “Not Without Us” town hall on Nov. 19.

The three panelists at the Jan. 27 town hall focused on the role of charter schools within the education system at the local, state, and national levels.

  • Mike Jones, former State Board of Education member
  • Constance Rush, Director of Advocacy and Freedom Schools, Deaconess Foundation
  • Dr. Sheila Powell-Walker, Vice President of the Ferguson-Florissant Board of Education and lifelong educator

Defining Public Schools

Public tax dollars and public oversight of schools are at the heart of the local mayors’ “Not Without Us” campaign. “I want to stress to you that we, as elected leaders, are fighting for you because we know that the stakes are high—as it relates to our school district and to our neighborhoods,” Mayor Brian K. Jackson of Beverly Hills said in his opening comments.

The first topic at the town hall was how “public schools” are defined. Are they a product that consumers can choose or as an infrastructure that benefits everyone equally?

“If education is a product, a marketplace approach makes a lot of sense,” said Mike Jones. “If you like the product, you keep buying it. If you don’t, you go on to something else. The whole question of choice revolves around a marketplace.”

But, he explained, there is another way to look at education: as part of our infrastructure. “Infrastructure is something that we all collectively need in order to live together in a society but that none of us can individually produce,” Jones said. “There’s nobody selling it. Everyone gets to use it and have equal access. Highways are a good example. Whether you drive a Bentley or a Honda Civic, you can get onto it and your access is not restricted.” As a social infrastructure, public schools work the same way.

Putting Charter Schools in Context

“The state constitution says that all public schools, K-12, are under the jurisdiction of the State Board of Education,” Jones said. “Private schools, whether religious or independent, are not. Neither are charter schools. It is not in a position to hold them accountable or even authorize or not authorize them.”

Based on this explanation, charter schools could be categorized as private schools that receive public funding—and, as both Mayor Jackson and Mayor James McGee of Vinita Park made clear, the 24:1 Municipal Partnership remains opposed to privately governed charter schools that receive public funding within the Normandy schools footprint.

History of charter schools

Many questions have come up about how charter schools are approved and operate in Missouri. These questions are answered in this Q&A, which contains questions from both Nov. 19 and Jan. 27.

Charter schools were seen as a promising trend in the years leading up to the opening of the first one in Missouri in 1999. “Nationally, there were public relations campaigns all over the country pitching this idea: Allow us to operate free of the restraints that you place on traditional public schools. Give us permission to operate within their school districts. We will operate as innovation hubs,” said Constance Rush.

This was very exciting for struggling school districts, she explained. They hoped that the ideas charter schools generated would be applied on a larger scale to benefit every school in the district and, by extension, every student.

“This has not turned out to be the case,” Rush said. “Not in Missouri and not in other places either. In effect, it created a separate system. Charters receive public funding but often do not operate under the same rules and regulations as public schools.”

Of the 64 charter schools that have opened in Kansas City and St. Louis—the only places they were allowed in Missouri before a charter school was approved in Normandy in December 2020—about 44% have closed.

This has a ripple effect. It ties up many resources at both state and local level. And it leaves students displaced and parents dissatisfied.

Barriers to Improving Public Education

Under the Missouri School Improvement Plan, “every year, school districts get a little report card from the state that says how they’re doing in five areas,” said Dr. Sheila Powell-Walker, who has spent more than 20 years working in education. These reports go into great detail, especially about sub-groups who are considered more vulnerable because they don’t perform well on standardized tests compared to their peers.

The problem, Powell-Walker said, is that schools are often not provided the funding and resources to ensure those struggling students achieve to the best of their ability.

She compared this to asking a person to build a house but giving them only a few tools—a hammer and nails and some plywood, for example. You might build a structure, but it would most likely not pass the building inspection “not because you didn’t care or didn’t want to build a good house, but because you did not receive the same preparation and resources.”

When a town hall audience member raised the topic of equity, Rush pointed out that “2020 was the first year in the United States that the number of Black and Brown children was more than children who are not. Everything we do has to be done with equity,” she said. “We can’t advocate or do anything without doing it equitably.”

In his closing remarks, Mayor McGee agreed, reinforced the importance of equity, saying, “The 24:1 Municipal Partnership has always been committed to the highest quality public education that prepares all our students for life, no matter the direction they choose.”

Future “Not Without Us” education town hall dates will be announced on our241.com and the 24:1 Facebook page.