On Tuesday, February 16, the State Board of Education voted to extend the tenure of the Special Administrative Board that governs St. Louis Public Schools. As a member of the state board, I owe the community my reasoning for this vote.
During my tenure on the state board, I've heard many presentations on turning around troubled school districts. The strategies may vary, but they all have a common theme: the importance of leadership. Invariably, the leadership they're talking about is leadership at the superintendent or building level.
However, my experience on the state board for the last four years has taught me the importance of leadership at the governance level. Whether it's effective district-wide administrative leadership or productive building leadership, they both require a governing board that is student-centered and committed to high standards. Simply put, superintendents like Tiffany Anderson and Kelvin Adams can't hire and empower themselves.
The current educational condition of St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) is a direct result of almost criminally bad governance, and I'm not talking about the current Special Administrative Board (SAB). I'm talking about the governance in place from 2002 to 2006, along with the complicity of St. Louis business and political leadership. SLPS was a struggling urban school district that was pushed into the abyss. You will never be able to overestimate the damage in terms of money and learning opportunities those years cost.
There is a lot of misunderstanding about who is in charge of governing education. The state constitution vests responsibility for instruction in public schools with the state board, and the legislature defines how the state board exercises that responsibility. There is no inherent right to local elected governance.
I have received substantial communication from people about what the state board should do, and the overwhelming consensus was we should let the SAB expire and return governance of the district back to the elected board. This correspondence was all focused on who should have the right to pick who runs the district. Though highly critical of the SAB’s performance, nobody made an argument that returning the district to control by the elected board would improve educational outcomes for children in the district.
I would never argue that SLPS represents the highest standard of educational excellence or even that they've turned the corner on that issue. But an honest critic has to admit they've climbed out of the hole they were in and they're beginning to make sustainable progress. This is where the question of governance becomes critical.
The SAB and Superintendent Kelvin Adams have created an effective, coherent governing philosophy and the ability to build consensus around educational policy and strategies. This consistency and predictability are critical in achieving and sustaining academic progress. A change in the SLPS governance structure would require all that to be renegotiated, and that would be disruptive. Now is not the time for that disruption.
However, the state board directed the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop a plan that specifies what conditions have to be met in order for SLPS to begin a transition to return to elected governance. That plan will be presented in April.
I commend and thank the three members of the SAB, Richard Gaines, Melanie Adams and Rick Sullivan, for extraordinary public service on behalf of the students that attend SLPS. However you measure the progress SLPS has achieved in the road back toward full accreditation, the foundation and context was provided by their work.
SLPS has come a long way, but still has a long way to go. The SAB may not be the ideal way to govern a school district, but for now it's the best way to govern this school district.
Mike Jones is a member of the State Board of Education as well as The St. Louis American’s editorial board.