Could School Choice Save St. Louis?

Published December 1, 2000

In a series of attempts to stem a dramatic population loss and revitalize a shrinking tax base, St. Louis city leaders have focused on big-ticket public projects, such as a new convention center, a football stadium, and, most recently, a $350 million baseball stadium.

These efforts to restore St. Louis to its former grandeur ignore a crucial reality: The city cannot survive without a solid population and tax base consisting of middle-class families. Those families will not choose to live in a city where the schools are widely perceived as failing to educate their students.

City leaders should consider a more promising investment: Tax-financed school choice.


The story of St. Louis is one you’ve heard about other older cities–dramatic population decline, a shrinking tax base, erosion in the quality of public services, increasing poverty and racial polarization among those left behind. For St. Louis, population peaked in the early 1950s at nearly 900,000 residents. By the end of the twentieth century, that figure had plummeted almost two-thirds, to 350,000.

Census data offer some insights as to who is leaving: Between 1980 and 1990, the number of residents living in family settings fell by 15 percent, while the number of married couples with children in the city dropped 26 percent. Those who left were more likely to be white, married, and have higher incomes, than those who stayed behind. By 1990, half of St. Louisans were racial minorities, less than a third were members of traditional families, and a quarter had incomes below the poverty line.

A 1996 survey of city residents and teachers by the independent research group Public Agenda revealed why so many families were fleeing the city: widespread dissatisfaction with the schools. Three-quarters of parents felt the schools failed to teach the basics, provide a safe environment, or develop high-tech skills. And notably, two-thirds of public school parents said they would send their children to private schools if money were not a factor.

Nearly half of St. Louis city school children currently exercise choice in some way, with 26 percent of children attending non-government schools and another 24 percent riding a bus to attend a county school as part of the desegregation program. Many low-income parents seek other alternatives, as demonstrated by the 4,700 applications received for 500 partial scholarships offered by the St. Louis Choice Scholarship Fund, a charitable organization.

Fully one-third of public school teachers in St. Louis send their own children to private schools. In fact, census data show that St. Louis residents are more likely than the U.S. average to choose private schools at every income level, but the difference becomes dramatic among high-income families.

St. Louis Public Schools

In the 1998-99 school year, the St. Louis City School District spent $7,564 per pupil. The results? The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reported a dropout rate of 62 percent: 2,000 students leaving school without a diploma. Of those who graduated, less than 30 percent went on to attend college (half the statewide average), and 90 percent scored below the national average on the ACT (American College Test). Student performance on the Missouri Assessment tests was extremely poor in all subject areas, with the majority of students scoring in the bottom category in all subjects.

Isn’t the answer simply to improve the public schools? The state of Missouri has spent $1.3 billion on desegregating St. Louis schools since 1981, when a Voluntary Transfer Program resulted in a two-way exchange of minority city children to county schools and white suburban children to city magnet schools. But most of the money was spent on bus transportation.

Although a settlement to phase out the program was reached in 1998, it was not because desegregation had been achieved. Today, 80 percent of St. Louis public school students are African-American, and most of them attend schools with virtually no white students.

Even charter schools, which have offered some hope to families in other cities, remain out of reach for most St. Louis parents. The public school establishment continues to use every means available to block or delay the development of this limited form of competition.

The political and civic institutions in St. Louis simply are not up to the task of improving city schools, according to a new book coauthored by UM-St. Louis political scientist Lana Stein, City Schools & City Politics. In a three-city survey of civic, business, and political leaders, the authors report that St. Louis leaders were far less impressed than their counterparts in Boston and Pittsburgh when asked about how their city was handling public school problems.

What Can Be Done?

No city can survive indefinitely without a strong, thriving middle class. The demographic shift in St. Louis has resulted in a high proportion of welfare-dependent residents with limited work skills and low incomes. The city has become so desperate to stem the flow of skilled workers that it strictly enforces residency requirements for public employees–firefighters, police officers, and public health physicians, for example–with often embarrassing and highly publicized results.

The solution seems obvious: St. Louis residents are clamoring for better schools. The government system has failed to provide safe and adequate schools. It’s time to empower parents by providing them with the ability to choose any school, public or private, parochial or independent, established or new.

Armed with tax-financed tuition scholarships, all St. Louis parents, no matter their race or income, could make the kinds of choices for their children’s futures that are now limited to the wealthy or the lucky few who receive private scholarships.

Joy Kiviat, an economist, is research director for Citizens for Educational Freedom, a grassroots organization advocating parental freedom in education. This article is based on a longer research paper.