Thomas Ultican: Saint Louis School Board Stalls Privatization Agenda
St. Louis public schools have weathered a variety of attacks over the years. The board is now riled up because they just caught another plan in the works. Reposted with permission.
The August 19th headline in the Saint-Louis Post Dispatch reported a new plan “sparks school board outrage.”The board accused Better Futures STL of trying to usurp its role. Better Futures soon cancelled the launch of its new program and Superintendent Kelvin Adams apologized for not sharing the extent of his involvement in a plan described as “a new St. Louis education blueprint that serves all children.”
The Post Dispatch went on to outline Better Futures as being started in April by Opportunity Trust, Education Equity Center of St. Louis, Forward Through Ferguson, WePower and others. Fenton, a pricey New York public relations firm, stated that Better Futures was developing a “community-designed plan over the next 12 months to reimagine an equitable K-12 public education system.” Superintendent Adams and Mayor Tishaura O. Jones are both on the new organizations advisory council.
Kelvin Adams Involvement Not a Surprise
In a magnificent article about the history and demise of public schools in St. Louis, Jeff Bryant detailed the neoliberal philosophy driving the city’s leadership. The hiring of Kelvin Adams was a result.
Mayor Francis Slay served four terms starting in 2001. He brought in Teach for America (TFA) and championed charter schools. When circumstances beyond the school district’s control led to a large deficit, Slay successfully recruited and financed a new slate of school board members in 2003.
Within a month of taking office, the school board voted to hire Alvarez & Marsal (A&M), the corporate turnaround consultants to run the district. A&M had never worked in a school system before. Former Brookes Brothers CEO William V. Roberti became the de facto superintendent of schools. The results were a disaster. District financing became so untenable that the state took over.
To solve the mess in Saint Louis, the state turned to the New Orleans Recovery School District and hired Paul Vallas’s chief of staff, Kelvin Adams. At the time, Peter Downs, president of the elected school board, called Adams unacceptable. However, Adams’ thirteen-year tenure is attributable to his popularity among Saint Louis’s neoliberal business and political leadership.
In 1981, Rex Sinquefield and David Booth a fellow MBA student at the University of Chicago formed the California based financial firm Dimensional Fund Advisor (DFA). Today the company oversees more than $350 billion in global assets. DFA pioneered index fund investing.
In 2005, Rex and his business partner wife Jeanne returned to Missouri ending his absence of more than 40 years. Since returning he has become a major force in Republican politics and has demonstrated a thorough disrespect for public education. Rex claimed,
‘“There was a published column by a man named Ralph Voss who was a former judge in Missouri,’ Sinquefield continued, in response to a question about ending teacher tenure. [Voss] said, ‘A long time ago, decades ago, the Ku Klux Klan got together and said how can we really hurt the African-American children permanently? How can we ruin their lives? And what they designed was the public school system.’”
Sinquefield was a major reason Josh Hawley was elected to the US Senate. Rex also spent $2.5 million trying to get Missouri’s income tax replaced with a sales tax and spent another $1.6 million attempting to have teachers evaluated using testing.
He has consistently championed lower regressive taxes and market base solutions.
On July 31, 2018, Neerav Kingsland, the founder of New Schools for New Orleans, announced on his blog that billionaires John Arnold and Reed Hastings had invested $100 million each to start The City Fund. Kingsland is the new Fund’s Managing Partner.
In addition to the non-profit, they have also created an associated political action organization called Public School Allies. In 2019, Allies sent $20,000 the Saint Louis’s Civil PAC.
City Fund has spent large amounts of money developing local organizations to promote implementation of the portfolio model of public education management. The portfolio model directs closing schools that score in the bottom 5% on standardized testing and reopening them as charter schools or Innovation schools. In either case, the local community loses their right to hold elected leaders accountable, because the schools are removed from the school board’s portfolio.
The Opportunity Trust is their partner in St. Louis. City Fund has made a three year $5.5 million grant to the Trust. Opportunity is also a TFA related business. Founder and CEO, Eric Scroggins, worked in various leadership positions at TFA for 14 years starting as a TFA corps member in 2001-3.
The 2017 Opportunity Trust founding board consisted of John Kemper, Diane Tavenner, Maxine Clark and Eric Scroggins. (See 2017 tax form 990 – EIN 82-1838644)
Diane Tavenner is the founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools, a charter management organization that serves schools in California and Washington State. Tavenner is a former board member of the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) and serves currently on the CCSA member’s council.
In 2018, John W. Kemper succeeded his father David Kemper as President and CEO of Commerce Bancshares Inc. Biz journal also noted,
‘“He will be a good steward. Cities need good banks to take care of the community, and Commerce is a well run company,’ said cousin and friendly rival Mariner Kemper, chairman of UMB Bank, Missouri’s second largest, with $20.6 billion in assets.”
Kemper also sits on several local boards including KIPP St Louis.
Maxine Clark is the daughter of Eleanor Roosevelt’s traveling secretary. She was President of Payless Shoes before founding Build-A-Bear Workshop which grew to over 400 mall based stores. Clark retired as CEO in 2013. Since leaving Build-A-Bear, she and her husband have concentrated on civic endeavors. Ladue News reports,
“Among their biggest successes is the launching of the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Charter Schools in St. Louis. There are two elementary KIPP schools and two middle schools, and this fall, KIPP St. Louis High School will welcome its first freshman class. As a public charter school, KIPP St. Louis High School will operate like a private college prep school.”
Clark calls her latest project Delmar Devine. It is a play on the local term “Delmar divide,” the line of demarcation separating predominantly white St. Louis from the North Side, where the population is nearly all African-American. She is using Housing and Urban Development money to remodel the 1904 built St. Luke’s Hospital into a mixed use facility with apartments and office space. Many of the new tenants are part of the segrenomics business selling education services to urban poor. They include: Teach for America, The Opportunity Trust, IFF, Education Equity Center of St. Louis, KIPP St. Louis and Navigate STL Schools.
Business elites like Maxine Clark and politicians like Mayor Tishaura O. Jones are making a terrible error in judgment. The public school system is the backbone of communities and the foundation of democracy. Furthermore, unbiased research shows that public schools consistently outperform either private schools or charter schools.