Tag Archives: Kelvin Adams

St. Louis Public Education Theft Accelerates

30 Dec

By Thomas Ultican 12/30/2020

A proposal to close 11 more public schools in St. Louis came before the school board on December 15. Based on Superintendent Kelvin Adams’ recommendation the final decision was postponed until January. It is not clear why Adams pulled back his own recommendation, but it is clear that public education in St. Louis is being dismantled.

In 1967, St. Louis’s school population peaked at 115,543. It was by far the largest school district in the state of Missouri. In 2020, total enrollment sank below 20,000 to for the first time to 19,222 and St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) is no longer the state’s largest K-12 district.

From 1967 to 2000 there was an enrollment decline of over 71,000 students. In a 2017 article, Journalist Jeff Bryant took an in depth look at the forces undermining St. Louis and its schools. He noted three defining events that turned St. Louis into the World’s most incredible shrinking city.

An 1876 home rule law enacted by city business leaders to keep control of the city’s economic engines created and locked in city boundaries. Today, there are over 90 municipalities surrounding St. Louis. After World War II, federal housing policies and racists lending practices created white flight to the burgeoning adjacent communities. Finally Bryant explains,

“Legislation passed in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s deregulating a number of key industries – including airlines and banking – put large St. Louis employers at a disadvantage. Then, new laws lifting anti-trust enforcement, passed during the Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton presidential administrations, subjected St. Louis’s leading industries to corporate takeover or rendered them uncompetitive.

“Consequently, St. Louis went from hosting 23 Fortune 500 headquarters in 1980 to hosting just nine in 2015.”

The Attack on Public Schools

 From 2000 to 2020, the student population in St. Louis has again fallen by more than half from 44,264 to 19,222. Some of that decline can be attributed to the continuation of migration to the suburbs which now includes Black families. However, a large portion of the drop is due to the growth of charter schools. The charter school enrollment for 2020 was at least 11,215 students which represents 37% of the district’s publicly supported students.

Like the national trend, the privatized schools chartered by the state, educate a lower percentage of the more expensive special education students; charters 11.4% versus SLPS 15.1%.

In 1997, the Heartland Institute reported,

“Although Missouri does not yet have a charter school law, a Charter Schools Technical Assistance Conference was held in St. Louis on November 22 with Mayor Clarence Harmon as the keynote speaker. Sponsored by the Charter Schools Information Center, the Saturday workshop featured state legislators, business leaders, and national and local charter school experts, including the Center’s director Laura Friedman and Paul Seibert of Charter Consultants.

“Although a charter school law failed to win legislative approval last spring, there appears to be strong support for the concept and hopes run high for passage in the coming session.”

The Heartland Institute is an extremely conservative organization with Libertarian ideals including opposition to climate change legislation and support for privatizing public education. Two of Heartland’s key funders are the Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee and Charles Koch of Koch Industries.

Mayor Harmon and the Heartland team saw their hopes rewarded in 1998 when Missouri became the 27th state to pass a charter school law. The University of Missouri notes, “Charters were one part of legislation designed to end three decades of court-ordered desegregation in Kansas City and St. Louis, and were limited to those two urban areas.”

In 2000, Mayor Harmon welcomed the first charter school in St. Louis, Lift for Life Academy.

The next year Francis Slay defeated Harmon in the mayoral race.

Slay like Harmon was a Democrat. He would serve for the next four terms. Over that time Slay developed a reputation as a charter school champion.

In 2002, Slay put together almost $800,000 to bring 50 fake teachers in from Teach For America (TFA). “Fake” because they have almost no training. It’s like calling a liberal arts college graduate with five weeks of summer training a lawyer or a dentist or an architect.

Slay increased his control over SLPS by putting together and financing a slate of four candidates for the seven member school board. A 2003 report in the River Front Times states,

Slay loaned $50,000 from his campaign fund to support the slate. Major area corporations kicked in with Anheuser-Busch, Ameren and Emerson Electric each giving $20,000. Energizer Eveready Battery Company gave $15,000. The coalition raised more than $235,000.

Within a month of taking their positions, the school board voted to hire Alvarez & Marsal (A&M), the corporate turnaround consultants. St. Louis paid A&M $4.8 million to run the district. A&M had never worked in a school system before. Former Brookes Brothers CEO William V. Roberti was to be superintendent of schools. His official title was changed to “Chief Restructuring Officer.” The clothing store leader had never worked in a school before.

Bryant reported, “Slay and this team attended training on how to remodel the district along business lines provided by the Broad Foundation, a private foundation that has long been a powerful advocate of charter schools.” However, their decision to bring in business professionals turned into a disaster. Deficit ballooned, teachers revolted, the district lost state accreditation and the state took over from the elected school board.

In 2005, the billionaire, Rex Sinquefield, returned to his roots in Missouri. Rex a former orphan became wealthy when he and a partner from the University of Chicago developed and marketed the first index funds. Rex also has economic views that align with the libertarian small government ideology of his Nobel Prize winning peers Milton Friedman and James M. Buchanan. 

Rex and wife Jeanne are proponents of “school choice.” They fund the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri (CEAM) claiming that the St. Louis based organization is the leading education reform organization in the state. They contribute millions to the right wing think tanks Show-Me Institute, which Rex also founded, and Missouri Club for Growth.

Sinquefield has made large campaign donations to Mayor Francis Slay plus Slay’s cousin, Laura Slay, is the Executive Director of CEAM. Laura is also owner of a public relations firm which regularly represents Rex. 

In 2011, former TFA corps member Charli Cooksey and three other former corps members founded the now defunct InspireSTL. In 2016, Cooksey resigned from InspireSTL to run for the powerless school board. The leadership at InspireSTL went to another former TFA corps member, Adam Layne.

Susan Turk of St. Louis Schools Watch reported that Cooksey received a $30,000 campaign contribution from Leadership for Education Equity (LEE). LEE is a billionaire funded and directed organization spending to elect former TFA corps members to school boards and other political positions.

In 2018, a former TFA corps member and employee for 14 years, Eric Scroggins, founded The Opportunity Trust. That same year The City Fund gifted the newly formed Opportunity Trust $5.5 million. That is the fund started in 2018 by former Enron trader John Arnold and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. They consider The Opportunity Trust their partner in St. Louis.

Charli Cooksey left the school board to found WEBPOWER, an organization meant to create community leaders to advance the privatization of public education and school choice.

In 2019, Cooksey’s successor at InspireSTL, Adam Layne, followed her path to the SLPS school board. He and fellow TFA alum Tracee Miller won the two seats available in 2019. That is the same year the state finally handed back control of SLPS to the elected school board. Miller raised local money and got a $1000 donation from LEE. Layne’s campaign raised almost no money but got a large donation from Public School Allies the political arm of The City Fund.

Tracee Miller has since resigned from the school board and written a scathing article about her experience:

“Shortly after my election to the BOE, I was approached by Eric Scroggins, founder and CEO of The Opportunity Trust, to visit The Mind Trust, an organization with a similar mission in Indianapolis. He personally selected three members of the BOE to attend. I am a person who is open to ideas and who believes in public education. I joined the trip with the understanding that it would be an opportunity to learn about innovative strategies being used in another Midwest city. However, the more questions that I asked and the more non-answers or unsatisfactory explanations that I heard, the more I realized that their agenda, and not students, was the priority.”

“I met with WEPOWER employee Gloria Nolan in what felt like a friendly conversation where the stated goal was to explore ways to bring the BOE and WEPOWER together; however, less than a week after this conversation WEPOWER attacked my credibility with false information and an out-of-context recording during the public comment portion of a BOE meeting. In addition, when I expressed concerns about the trip to Indianapolis, financial connections to school board members, or that these groups did not seem to focus on all education providers but only on SLPS, both WEPOWER and The Opportunity Trust ceased communication with me.”

“Mr. Scroggins eventually contacted me to let me know that he found my questioning of his approach to education reform to be misguided. He used patronizing and intimidating language to attack my ethics and integrity on account of my opposition to Senate Bills 525, 603, and 649 regarding the expansion of charter schools, and accused me of being uninformed and incapable of leadership, of ignoring science, and of perpetuating inequity.”

“Most notably, The Opportunity Trust funded the strategic plan for the Normandy School District, which resulted in the hiring of Marcus Robinson, former Executive-in-Residence at The Opportunity Trust, as its new superintendent. Normandy is opening their first charter school (also funded in part by The Opportunity Trust) in Fall 2021.”

In 2017, longtime 28th Ward Alderman, Lyda Krewson, became the next neoliberal Democrat serving as Mayor in St. Louis. After she doxxed people calling on her to de-fund the police, a large demonstration heading to her home made national news. Krewson’s gun toting neighbors, Mark McCloskey and his wife Patricia, threatened the passing crowd with guns, admonishing them to stay off their property.

Mayor Krewson has kept up the nepotistic schemes attacking public schools. Jack Krewson the mayor’s son is a co-founder of Kairos Academies along with creator Gavin Schiffres. The school’s design was developed in 2015 as a capstone project for Schiffres’s undergraduate degree at YALE. The Opportunity Trust also invested in the incubation and then launch of Kairos Academy, the first personalized learning school in St. Louis.

In other words, three TFA alums, Scroggins, Schiffres and Krewson, have teamed up to sell edtech to St. Louis. They have an “innovative” plan to put kids at screens, the last thing 21st century kids need. At the same time excellent public schools with real teachers are being closed.

Developing the Portfolio District Model

The City Fund is known for its support of the portfolio district management model. It is a method that removes control of schools from elected boards and replaces them with private businesses either for profit or non-profit. The evaluations are based on standardized testing results meaning the lowest performing schools are closed and replaced invariably by a privatized school. Since standardized testing only measures relative family wealth accurately, this plan guarantees schools in poor communities will be privatized.

 In 2008, the state overseers selected Dr. Kelvin Adams (is it OK to call him Dr.?) to be Superintendent of schools in St. Louis; the position he still occupies. At the time, Peter Downs the President of the elected school board called the selection unacceptable.

Adams came to St. Louis from the Recovery School District in New Orleans where he was second-in-command to the infamous Paul Vallas. Prior to the Saint Louis announcement, Vallas had stated publicly that Adams was his top choice as a successor. Being thought of as a successor to a known virulent opponent of public schools was a big concern. However, Adams took over the mess left by A&M; fixed the financial issues, raised attendance rates, lowered dropout rates and got the district accreditation restored.

Adams also continued to close schools. SLPS has gone from 93 schools when he arrived to 68 schools now and he wants to close 11 more.  

A component of the portfolio model school districts in both Indianapolis and Denver is Innovation Schools. The American Legislative Exchange Council has created model legislation for the development of these schools which are removed from the purview of the elected school board and given to a non-elected board. The ultra-right wing billionaire Charles Koch of Koch Industries is the key funder of ALEC. Koch has a long history of opposing public education.

Superintendent Adams is an outspoken advocate of school choice, the portfolio model and innovation schools. In fact, he claims as an achievement, “Created a portfolio of schools to provide meaningful choices for students and parents.” In 2019, Adams introduced innovation schools to Saint Louis calling them the Consortium Partnership Network. The announcement on the SLPS webpage states,

“Beginning January 2019, the CPN school principal and teacher leadership teams began a 4-month planning process together to define school structures, working conditions, priorities and budgets. This process was facilitated by Bellwether Education Partners…”

Bellwether Education Partners came into being in 2011 when it was cofounded by New Schools Venture Fund founding CEO Kim Smith and former Clinton administration domestic policy advisor Andrew J. Rotherham. Both Smith and Rotherham have had lucrative careers attacking public education for their billionaire funders.

It is clear that St. Louis Public Schools are in trouble and the vultures are circling. They have been weakened and are targeted by billionaires like Rex Sinquefield, Reed Hastings, Alice Walton, John Arnold, Bill Gates…

A paper written by National Board Certified Teacher Ceresta Smith, Why People of Color Must Reject Market-Based Education Reforms, has a profound message for the large Black population in St. Louis. Their democratic right to govern their own schools is being stolen and they must resist. Most of the 23 page paper cites other studies that support her opening statements:

“Reformers assert that test-based teacher evaluation, increased school “choice” through expanded access to charter schools, and the closure of “failing” and under enrolled schools will boost falling student achievement and narrow longstanding race- and income-based achievement gaps.”

    •  “Test scores increased less, and achievement gaps grew more, in “reform” cities than in other urban districts.
    • “Reported successes for targeted students evaporated upon closer examination.
    • “Test-based accountability prompted churn that thinned the ranks of experienced teachers, but not necessarily bad teachers.
    • “School closures did not send students to better schools or save school districts money.
    • “Charter schools further disrupted the districts while providing mixed benefits, particularly for the highest-needs students.
    • “Emphasis on the widely touted market-oriented reforms drew attention and resources from initiatives with greater promise.
    • “The reforms missed a critical factor driving achievement gaps: the influence of poverty on academic performance.”

In the conclusion Ceresta says to care givers for students of color,

“Of high importance, they must not fall prey to the trap of “school choice,” which in itself is a method of racist exclusion that provides for a “few” at the expense of the “many.”  Instead, they must first and foremost, stop allowing their children to be used to further the inequities in public education and ultimate wealth building.”