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Editorial: One school district. One focus. One future: Unify St. Louis schools (Part II)

Editorial: One school district. One focus. One future: Unify St. Louis schools (Part II)

From the A Greater St. Louis: An editorial series series
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Of the numerous proposals to bring more unity to the St. Louis region in the wake of issues raised by the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, the one getting the least amount of attention might have the most potential for long-term gain.

From police departments, to courts, to city boundaries and school districts, there are all sorts of government barriers in the region, many of them erected originally to purposefully divide by race.

On Saturday, the leader of the Black Leadership Roundtable, Ron Jackson, challenged black leaders in St. Louis to advocate for the 24 school districts in the St. Louis region to become one:

“A city-county school district is the only way all children would have access to a quality education,” Mr. Jackson said.

He’s right. In February, as part of our “A Greater St. Louis” series, we advocated for exactly that. It’s a controversial idea, but not a new one. A statewide commission made the recommendation as far back as 1968, when, not coincidentally, St. Louis was suffering through a time of civil unrest based on racial divides.

This is a radical idea in many ways. But as Mr. Jackson said, “Unless you’re willing to take radical or dramatic action, nothing ever changes.”

The fastest way to move toward such unity would be for the school districts in the St. Louis region to adopt an open enrollment policy. This would fix the broken school transfer law that the Legislature created and has been unwilling to repair. Districts would agree to a set tuition amount that would follow any student who wanted to cross boundaries. Transportation would be provided for those below poverty level. The Legislature could make the fix, or the school districts could do it on their own.

But Mr. Jackson is right: On this issue, St. Louis lawmakers, regardless of their color, should unite. Until everybody in the region has a direct investment in the success of every student in every school, too many children have little chance to succeed. The cycle of failure and frustration will continue. The brand-new Ferguson Commission should keep that in mind.

St. Louis has to change. It should start with schools. Here is that February editorial in its entirety. What was true in February was underscored in August and is still true today.


In word, if not in deed, Missouri’s leaders know that a greater St. Louis is not possible unless educational opportunities improve.

Joe Reagan, the president and CEO of the St. Louis Regional Chamber, puts it this way: “Educational attainment has to be the No. 1 priority.”

Gov. Jay Nixon is not to be outdone: “Our single greatest responsibility ... is to make sure every child in Missouri has an opportunity to achieve his or her dreams. … That opportunity starts with education.”

Strong words. And yet, if you’re a kid in the unaccredited and soon-to-be bankrupt Normandy School District, those words might seem as hollow as an empty stomach before the start of a school day.

Two school districts in the St. Louis region — Normandy and Riverview Gardens — have failed in the eyes of the state. Several others, including St. Louis Public Schools, aren’t much better. Tens of thousands of children, who through no fault of their own live in ZIP codes awash in poverty, have been abandoned by school leaders, politicians and business leaders who have decided to focus on other priorities or tackle easier problems.

And yes, some of these kids don’t get much help from their teachers or parents, either. We’re well into the third generation of kids who’ve come out of schools that are mediocre at best. A kid who drops out of school or graduates functionally illiterate is unlikely to instill a love of learning in his or her own kids.

If any of those children are fortunate enough to make it through the maze of obstacles set before them, they’ll find themselves trying to gain acceptance to a state college system that is the 47th-worst funded in the nation.

“Conviction is worthless,” Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle wrote, “unless it is converted into conduct.”


There is one St. Louis for the poor kids living in the urban core with failing schools and little business investment. There is another city and its suburbs for the children of the middle class. There is a third St. Louis for the children of the privileged. For them public schools are for other people’s kids. It makes it easier for them to pass around tax subsidies that rob public schools.

It’s time for St. Louis to rewrite its historic tale of division. Public schools educate the majority of St. Louis children, and it’s time to make them more equal.

The Missouri Legislature should make one sweeping change that will address the state’s education crisis like no other proposal: Turn the 24 school districts that make up the city and county into a single unified school district. It’s time to break down the barriers that were created by decades of white flight. Make sure that every St. Louis city and county taxpayer, every teacher, every principal, every elected official, is invested in the success of every child in our region, regardless of the student’s ZIP code.

To some, this will seem radical. It will seem impossible.

In fact, it’s a solid, research-based proposal that’s been collecting dust on a shelf for more than four decades.

In 1966, the Washington, D.C.-based Academy for Educational Development studied Missouri’s schools and found a particular problem with poor districts in the cities of St. Louis and Kansas City: The city schools had been isolated “since no surrounding area wishes to incorporate them and to assume a part of the responsibility for educating their children.”

That study spurred a governor’s conference, which was followed by a three-year commission led by state Rep. James Spainhower of Saline County. Both the governor’s conference and the commission came to the same overriding and compelling conclusion: The solution to the isolation of certain poor school districts in both rural and urban areas was consolidation.

The Spainhower Commission proposed 20 regional districts in the state of Missouri, including one large urban district in St. Louis, which it called “the East-West Gateway.” The regional districts would retain taxing authority and most administrative functions, but they would allow educators in 133 smaller “local school units” to make most day-to-day decisions regarding schools.

At the time there were 786 school districts in Missouri, down from 8,661 in 1940. Today there are 520, roughly 500 too many.


Not surprisingly, the Spainhower solution was immediately opposed by residents of suburban districts, with many of them doing nothing to hide their No. 1 concern: race. The proposal died a quick death.

Mr. Spainhower is 85 and after an accomplished career that included stints as the state treasurer and presidents of both College of the Ozarks and Lindenwood University, he lives in a suburb of Kansas City. Kansas City has its own unaccredited school district that now faces the same kind of transfer crisis that grips St. Louis. He would like to think his report would fare better today, but he’s not so sure.

“The only place where the report was weak,” he told us, “was in the thought that people could get over their biases.”

In some ways, not much has changed since 1968.

Last year, researchers Donna Gardner of William Jewell College and John Rury of the University of Kansas published a report examining the Spainhower Commission’s conclusions in light of the current school transfer crisis in Missouri.

Their conclusion was stark.

“While the controversies that arose during the latter 1960s ... may have passed, there can be little doubt that many of the fault lines that were exposed then continue to be in place nearly half a century later.”

Every decade, it seems, the story is the same. St. Louis will do just enough to quell a crisis, but it won’t truly embrace the one solution that has the potential to solve the problem. Suburban districts point with pride to their participation in the voluntary interdistrict transfer program developed during the 1980s desegregation crisis, for instance, but omit the fact that it was devised specifically to avoid the creation of a metrowide school district.

The Spainhower Commission summed up such reluctance eloquently:

“We accept a trip to the moon as inevitable in the next few years, but we resist joining with our neighbors in the next village to develop school facilities that will enable our children to develop their minds and bodies so that they, in the next half century, may make our accomplishments to date only stepping stones to the future they will build.”

Nearly half a century of resistance, and several trips to the moon and back, have passed since those words were written.


Many St. Louis civic and business leaders favor a plan to merge or otherwise reunify the governments of the city and county in the region. Why, then, should school district boundaries be so sacrosanct?

In the 46 years since the Spainhower report, congressional, city and state legislative boundaries have been redrawn five times. As communities change, so do the maps that outline the areas elected officials represent.

Schools shouldn’t be any different.

Perhaps the greatest benefit to creating one unified St. Louis school district would be its potential effect on the underlying causes of poverty in the region.

  • One unified St. Louis school district would stand firmly against being robbed of revenue by the tax increment financing schemes that cause parochial fights over development patterns.
  • One unified school district would create a powerful lobbying force in Jefferson City that would demand that public schools are adequately funded.
  • One unified school district would help return Missouri to the promise laid out by its founders, as best represented by Sullivan County delegate Westley Halliburton in the 1875 debate over the state’s first constitution: “The children of the State should have its benefits equally, without regard to whether they are children of the rich, or of the poor, whether a particular locality is a wealthy or a poor locality. The money is to be spread abroad equally.”

This is how Missouri can fulfill its promise that every child deserves an education. This is how St. Louis creates a workforce capable of competing in the knowledge economy.

One school district. One focus. One future.

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