In the balance of power between local school-board jurisdiction and state responsibility, accreditation is the atom bomb. Seldom used, its threat can make local school districts scramble to increase staff, stock libraries and prepare students for achievement tests.
Because the St. Louis Public Schools are embattled on so many fronts -- legal, social and educational -- it's not surprising that the state Legislature resorted to loss of accreditation as a weapon against the local school board. Under Senate Bill 781, approved last year, if city schools lose accreditation this year, the local school board will be replaced by a three-person transitional board and the state will appoint a CEO to run the schools.
The desegregation settlement talks have involved attempts to ameliorate those terms, but Missouri Commissioner of Education Robert Bartman insists that the accreditation process is above politics and will not be affected by the course of the school-desegregation settlement.
There has been speculation that if the parties failed to reach a settlement and the desegregation plan looked as if it would drag on through the courts for the next few years, the state would have an incentive to take over the district because its money would continue to pour into it. Bartman denies this and is sensitive to the suggestion that people may think educational decisions are made with political motivations.
"Our view is that the accreditation process takes place without regard to the desegregation-settlement issues," says Bartman. "The accreditation program comes into a district and gives the district an honest, fair review, looking at the resources it has available to provide an education; looks at how it uses those resources; and then looks at the performance or the result of the students, which are the primary purpose for having the resources and the processes.
"That takes place outside the context of whether there is, or isn't, a settlement, or whether the tax passes or doesn't pass," Bartman says. "It is in many ways, but not entirely, unrelated."
That's not to say that Bartman thinks "taking over" the city school district by supplanting its board is necessarily a bad idea.
"The intent of the law is to short-circuit a decision-making operation that has not shown results," says Bartman. "It's tantamount to taking one corporate board that has an organization that's not living up to standards, moving them out, and moving in another corporate board with a different mindset, a different focus and a different capacity to move forward."
Sheryl Davenport, head of the St. Louis Teachers Union, doesn't believe the state is anxious to assume responsibility for city schools and their problems.
"The state doesn't want us," says Davenport. "Do they really want to deal with this? Does Bartman really want to come to St. Louis and hire somebody to oversee St. Louis public schools? Let's be practical."
Another option for a district that goes unaccredited for two years is for it to be absorbed by adjacent districts. That eventuality for the city is clouded by SB 781's provisions, but Davenport thinks the chances of that happening are slim.
"Think about the surrounding districts we could be absorbed by," asks Davenport. "Does Clayton want St. Louis Public Schools? Does it want our problems? How about U. City? What about Ferguson-Florissant? Normandy? Wellston? Riverview Gardens? Jennings? Bayless? Affton? They're already fighting us -- why would they want us?"
One matter on which Davenport and Bartman agree is the difficulty city schools may have meeting student achievement levels. So far, city students' scores on performance tests have "not been good at all," says Bartman.
"I believe the performance areas will be the toughest ones for them to meet," Bartman says. "The resource stuff is basically stuff you can buy -- teachers, textbooks, libraries, things like that. The process is just using them to the best effect and impact on the kids. That's something you can work at in a short period of time and get done. The performance issues sometimes take a little longer."
Davenport points to the new tests used by the state, as well as higher standards, but admits the state might find justification to act. "If those performance scores are that bad, we can have all the resources and facilities and processes that can be, but if our performance stinks it could just pull it all down and we can go from accredited to unaccredited in one swipe," says Davenport.
"This is the first year of full testing," Davenport says of the state's new test. "We happen to be so unlucky as to get our accreditation in the transition period of the test. Students are still learning the test and how to take it. It's a whole new process. Our curriculum hasn't even caught up with the new test procedures."
The state Board of Education is still sorting out the particulars of how to gauge the test results. The board meets in Jefferson City this week to decide whether 10 percent or 20 percent of those scoring in the lowest quarter must move up to the next quarter for a school to be accredited. The city school district is hoping for the 10 percent figure; others are pushing for the higher number.
"If they meet their own goals and they'll agree that's certainly not a done deal, but they think it's do-able, in that particular area of performance, they'll meet the criteria," says Bartman of the city schools.
Despite all the numbers, Bartman admits "there is some subjectivity that allows for professional input and discretion" during accreditation. The process involves site visits by review teams of 60 to 70 experts, who in turn report to an internal committee of eight to 10 people within the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. That committee makes a recommendation to Bartman, who makes the final decision on accreditation.
For Davenport, the loss of accreditation and supplanting of the local school board are distractions from the real problem.
"To me, all these are just threats," Davenport says. "Let's deal with the problems. Get to the heart of the problems. Funding for St. Louis public schools is the problem. You're going to have to deal with it, and this is not doing that. The foundation formula that the Legislature passed to solve all these problems -- well, it didn't."
Bartman says his focus is on improving the lot of city students, whatever the means.
"What we are adamant about is to see the performance of the kids in the St. Louis school district improve and improve significantly," says Bartman. "We want to see general overall improvement over time, and what we're going to look at is the data that we have available right now. But if they're improving, we want that improvement to be continuous and significant over time so that the majority of kids who enter St. Louis public schools actually graduate with competencies and skills that will help them be successful after school. That's the goal.
"My own view is that until the schools prosper, the city itself will not prosper. At this point, the schools have not prospered from the standpoint of the students. The destiny of the city is wrapped up in their capacity to lift the performance levels of their students so they all can be successful. We've reached a time when we have an opportunity to turn things around."
-- D.J. Wilson