Students sit in to save schools

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — As hundreds of students, parents and concerned citizens chanted “No takeover,” the Missouri Board of Education voted 5-1 to strip accreditation from the 32,000-student St. Louis City Public Schools March 22.

A three-person board will oversee the work of the district starting June 15. The board will be appointed by Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and newly elected Aldermanic President Lewis Reed. Local, elected school board members will remain in place but have no real power.

On March 18, just days before the takeover, high school students wearing T-shirts that read, “Please don’t SLAY our future,” ended a five-day sit-in at the mayor’s office.

At the sit-in, Kaylan Holloway, a 15-year-old sophomore from Soldan International Studies High School, told the World, “What happens to our schools affects our future. This is our chance to voice our opinion. This is the only way that Mayor Slay would listen to us.”

The school crisis is not unique to St. Louis. Around the country, meat-cleaver cuts in the federal education budget have opened the door for state governments to trample the rights of urban school boards, local residents, parents and students to govern their schools. In no instance, however, have such moves improved the quality of education.

Over the past few months, a debate has raged, largely without student input, regarding the St. Louis school district’s future. Currently, it is operating at a $23 million deficit. According to Missouri law, school districts must have balanced budgets.

Parents and students alike are concerned that the loss of accreditation will affect college applicants. According to students, some colleges have stricter admission requirements for students who graduate from unaccredited schools.

During the sit-in, Alderman Terry Kennedy of the 18th Ward said, “The African American Aldermanic Caucus opposes a state takeover of our public schools and supports the right of these students to peacefully demonstrate and have their grievances addressed.”

Before the vote, officials of the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said the St. Louis school district had failed to meet both academic and financial standards.

However, Donovan Jackson, a 17-year-old junior from Gateway High School, told the World, “The state says we are in educational and financial distress. We are not in educational distress! There are 12 other school district doing worse than we are. They aren’t being taken over.” However, he added, “we are in financial distress, due to Mayor Slay’s policies and support for vouchers.”

Jackson said, “They want to use public money for charter schools.” Mayor Slay has repeatedly said that he supports the state’s takeover and the passage of SB 564, a bill introduced in the state Senate last month that would allow him to sponsor charter schools in St. Louis.

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, do not have the same data-reporting and accreditation mandates as public schools. They are usually anti-union. They can only operate with a sponsor, usually a university.

School board member Donna Jones, who is also a member of American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 420, told reporters that the mayor’s office was the perfect sit-in site because he backed a slate of school board candidates who wanted to “destroy” public schools.

According to the AFT, the state takeover will affect teachers’ contract and seniority rights. Many teachers expect layoffs to come as well.

“To replace elected board members with politicians appointed by other politicians is just un-American,” school board member Bill Purdy told reporters. Purdy, along with other board members, plan to sue the state to stop the takeover. Community control of the public school system and its board is a concern for students and community residents alike.

St. Louis Superintendent of Schools Diana Bourisaw expressed disappointment with the vote and insisted the district was improving.

While the state has decided to take over the school district, students and teachers aren’t lying down. AFT Local 420 President Mary Armstrong told reporters, “I’m disappointed, upset and ready to fight.”

Devin Jackson, a 15-year-old also from Gateway High, told the World, “We proved to the city and to the state that kids care about our public schools. We’re going to keep fighting. This isn’t over.”

tonypec @ cpusa.org