By Dale Singer
St. Louis is backing charter school parents in a legal dispute over how money from a 1999 city sales tax is distributed.
St. Louis officials argue that the money from the sales tax was designed to help all students attending public schools in the city, not just those in district schools.
The St. Louis Public Schools and the NAACP, which filed the lawsuit, say the money should go only to the school district, not to charters, and they want to recover more than $50 million that has gone to the charters since 2006.
The city of St. Louis is echoing the charters' original response that the money was meant to help all public school students who live in the city. The charters say that, if they have to repay the money, they might be forced to close.
In a brief filed with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the city asked that the parents of two charter school students be allowed to enter the case. Their request had been denied by U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey in July.
The city’s brief says the parents definitely should be allowed to be a party to the case.
“Appellants are threatened with direct loss of educational funding for their children in the city of St. Louis who attend charter public schools,” the brief says.
“This injury is threatened and real. Since 1999, thousands of city public school students have made a choice, rejecting traditional public schools and enrolling as a quality educational alternative in charter public schools.”
The city's brief goes further, making the case that the money raised by the sales tax is supposed to help students in both district schools and charter schools. It cites language from U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh Sr., who signed off on the 1999 settlement agreement in the long-standing school desegregation case.
It also discusses the intent of the legislation, SB781, that put the settlement in motion.
“Judge Limbaugh uses the terms ‘public schools’ and ‘city schools’ interchangeably throughout his order, as is appropriate,” the brief says. “Simply, charter public schools were intended to be among the entirety of public schools that were to directly benefit from the settlement agreement.
“It goes without saying that the needs of city children who attend charter public schools are identical to the needs of those children who are educated in non-charter public schools in the district.”
To bolster its argument, the city quotes from the sales tax proposition that won overwhelming voter approval in 1999.
“The language of the first paragraph presented to these voters asked them to improve a sales tax increase ‘for purposes of improving the primary and secondary educational opportunities for the residents of St. Louis,’” the brief says.
“Is it a fair reading to conclude that voters would understand this language to mean that the sales tax increase was for ‘improving’ of ‘educational opportunities’ that included the 1998 charter public schools authorized by SB781? Of course it is.”
Though the vote came before charter schools were well established in the city, the brief said the intent of the vote was clear.
'Since 1999, thousands of city public school students have made a choice, rejecting traditional public schools and enrolling as a quality educational alternative in charter public schools.' -- Brief from city of St. Louis
“Further,” the brief says, “were one to ask the city of St. Louis voters what they believed they were actually voting in favor of funding that day, one would not expect the answer to be ‘funding only for the traditional public school system as it has always existed.’ To the contrary, the ballot language clearly speaks to new funding for improving educational opportunities, not simply further funding for the status quo.
“Certainly, these same voters would indicate they were not voting for a windfall to the existing school administration, or for the additional funding to go to only a certain portion of public school students. The plain language did not exclude public school students of the new charter public schools and voters could not and would not have deduced these public school students to be so excluded.”
The brief concludes that the students in charter schools are there because they chose not to attend district schools, so taking the tax receipts away from their schools “would generate a windfall for the district and strip educational funding from charter public school students, which the funds were intended to include. To do so would effectively shutter the charter public schools by depriving them of the voted-upon city of St. Louis tax money.
“Naturally, this would diminish the quality of educational opportunities for these public school children and ignore the legislative intent of SB781.”
Along with the brief filed by the city, the parents’ effort to be allowed to take part in the case was also backed by a brief from the Confluence charter schools. The children of one of the parents, Ken Ross Jr., attend Confluence schools.
Barring Ross from joining the case, the brief says, would run counter to the aims of the desegregation lawsuit in general, which is providing wider education opportunities to African-American students. That opportunity has come in recent years, the brief says, as enrollment in St. Louis Public Schools has dropped and enrollment in charter schools has increased.
“In light of continuing enrollment trends that make adequate funding of St. Louis charter public schools critical to the quality of education being provided to the families residing in the city of St. Louis,” the brief says, “this court should reject the district court’s conclusion that these families do not have standing to intervene.”
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