- By Jane Donahu April 3, 2016
Recently, there have been many St. Louis city infrastructure projects to celebrate, from Ikea in midtown, to the CityArchRiver, to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in north St. Louis. On Tuesday, city voters will be invited to invest in the city’s most important civic infrastructure: its public school system. Voting yes on Proposition 1, a property tax levy, will generate approximately $28 million annually to support 40,000-plus public school children; voting yes on Proposition 1 is a vote for our city’s future.
In February, the St. Louis Public Schools Foundation Board of Directors unanimously voted to endorse Proposition 1. As the St. Louis Public School District’s primary strategy and fundraising partner, the SLPS Foundation is a research and data-driven entity. We advocate for investments that promise real results for students: better academic preparation, equal access to career and college opportunity, and the best possible school leadership. Among the foundation’s 20-member board, the debate to endorse Proposition 1 was short: Proposition 1 makes the city’s children a priority.
Revenue from Proposition 1 will make it possible to extend and expand proven efforts, which the foundation also supports. These include:
• Giving strong starts to the city’s youngest learners. Currently, St. Louis Public Schools offers full-day, quality early childhood education to 2,300 3- and 4-year-olds at no cost to families. Preschoolers are developing invaluable math, literacy and social skills that poise them for success in elementary school classrooms. SLPS has become one of the city’s largest providers of quality early childhood education, and has honed an approach that leverages certified teachers and tested curriculum. If Proposition 1 does not pass, SLPS will have to consider dramatically cutting this program, since state funding won’t cover it. Putting a halt to this proven progress would be a giant step backward.
• Retaining dedicated teachers. Behind any thriving student is a skilled teacher. In the St. Louis Public Schools, where nearly 90 percent of the students are growing up in poverty, the challenges are formidable, and also inspire great resilience among both staff and students. It is not uncommon for an SLPS teacher to greet a classroom of second-graders on a Monday morning who have navigated hunger, or had their utilities cut off, or witnessed violence over the weekend. Yet, teachers create classrooms where learning and discovery prevail.
The data tell the story: Since 2010, SLPS students have shown steady gains on Missouri’s academic assessment tests. Despite their dedicated efforts, St. Louis Public Schools teachers earn $26,000 less than peers in higher-paying districts in the St. Louis region. Experienced educators shouldn’t have to leave the children they love in order to make a decent living.
• Educating the whole child. New revenue from Proposition 1 will also ensure that students engage in programs that strengthen their social and emotional skills. In a global work environment where adaptability and collaborative problem solving will be as important as academic acumen, SLPS students need the opportunities that expand their thinking and build their leadership skills.
Since the events in Ferguson, there have been numerous “calls to action” by community members and private- and public-sector leaders. Nearly all of these calls propose a revitalized commitment to creating equitable educational systems. The vision cannot remain in the realm of poetic rhetoric. While educational innovation and great leadership will move the needle, sustainable progress will take sustained resources.
It has been 25 years since St. Louis city increased the operating tax levy to support public schools, resulting in homegrown inequity. Research has shown the power of a student’s ZIP code in predicting health outcomes; so too does a ZIP code currently determine how much we invest in a child’s education.
Students in the city should not wait a minute longer. On April 5, city voters will have the chance to choose concrete action. Voting yes on Proposition 1 is a positive and essential step toward building a stronger St. Louis.
Jane Donahue is president of the St. Louis Public Schools Foundation.