Former vice president and current presidential hopeful Joe Biden recently caught a lot of flak for saying if President Trump were to be booted out of office, politics would go back to being sane again. He then suggested that his history of being “civil” with avowed segregationists was an asset worthy of the presidency. Biden’s critics were right to point out his “nostalgia” ignores the assault on democracy that occurred during those mythical “good times” before Trump, and a more important concern is whether years of systemic corruption and intransigence toward democracy have become so ingrained that government of the people, by the people, and for the people is no longer possible.

That very concern is currently being tested in an arena long regarded as the foundation of democracy itself—the nation’s public schools. Currently, numerous urban school districts around the country are returning to local democratic control after years of authoritarian, and often corrupt, rule by their respective state governments. In New Orleans, Philadelphia, Detroit, Newark, and elsewhere, school districts that have spent years under the thumb of state-appointed boards and managers are transitioning to public control through either democratically elected boards or boards appointed by an elected mayor.

These urban, mostly black communities face the reality that there are simply no “better days” to return to. Like their peers at the national level attempting to present a vision of politics in a post-Trump era, they have to consider whether the usual business of politics can still work or whether forces that have waged a long war against democracy may have won.

St. Louis Story

One urban district that faces an especially steep climb out of the abyss of oppressive rule is St. Louis.

When I first reported from St. Louis in 2017, I found a school system which had been designed to be the gem of the Midwest had instead been decimated.

First, waves of policies from local, state, and federal governments imposed racial segregation on the system. Chronic underfunding hobbled progress. When the system eventually crashed, a wave of “reforms”—hiring consultants, cutting services, outsourcing to corporate contractors, and opening the system to privately operated charter schools—plundered what was left.

At the lowest point in the decline, in the early 2000s, St. Louis was the number one most shrinking city in the world. Today, the school system is a shell of its former self, down to fewer than 29,000 students compared to 115,543 at its peak in 1967. The district lost its accreditation in 2007, which led to a state takeover that nullified the authority of the locally elected school board and handed governance over to officials appointed by the state, who often ruled with impunity.

But on July 1, St. Louis has a historic opportunity to turn a corner when governing authority transitions from the state-appointed board to a locally elected one. With a newly elected board, a return to full accreditation, and a supposed clean slate to write its future, can St. Louis show how democratic governance can overcome years of corrosive politics and genuinely reflect the desires of local citizens?

In my conversations with locals, answers are mixed.

‘Very Concerned About the Future’

“I am very concerned about the future,” Susan Turk tells me. Turk, a former St. Louis public school parent and a relentless school board watchdog, has been a studious observer of the past 25 years of district history. Her periodic newsletter is a brash alternative to a generally uncritical local press.

When I first interviewed Turk nearly two years ago, she described local politics as “run with an iron fist” with “only certain people” in the local power structure. She welcomed the return of the district’s accreditation but lamented the lack of significant improvement in academic performance. “We’re no better than we were ten years ago,” she said. “It’s really hard to see something positive.”

Today, she sees in the elected board an opportunity for real progress but has concerns that years of state-appointed oversight and corrupt influencers still entrenched in the system will thwart authentic democratic governance.

Susan Jones, a current member of the elected board and its most recent past president, is more optimistic. When I interviewed her in 2017, one of her priorities was returning the elected board. Today, she’s “overjoyed” to see that goal becoming reality. “I believe that the St. Louis community will have a new sense of feeling that they are a part of the conversation,” she told a local news outlet.

In her email to me, Jones is exceedingly more cautious than she was in my first conversation with her—perhaps a sign of just how precarious it will be for elected board members to air differences, express sharp breaks with past leaders, and avoid falling into what local media outlets have described as “the infighting and dysfunction that plagued the board before the takeover.” (Jones asked that I note she does not speak for the board and that I not include any direct statements she made to me in 2017.)

“I’ll be stepping into this role with an open mind,” she tells me, “and [a] focus that ensures that decisions are always being made in the best interest of our students” (emphasis original).

Set Up for Fiscal Failure

While an open mind is a good thing, financial constraints will continue to limit the district’s options.

When the Great Recession hit in 2008, the state slashed spending on education. A 2015 accounting of state school funding found Missouri was “underfunding its K-12 schools by $656 million statewide, nearly 20 percent below the required level.” Up through 2016, the state was one of 27 states that continued to spend less on education than it did before the economy crashed.

State education spending has recently rebounded somewhat but remains stubbornly low at only 3 percent higher than pre-recession levels. St. Louis is even worse off. According to a recent study, high-poverty, nonwhite school districts in Missouri, like St. Louis, have on average received $134 less per student in state funding, or 2 percent, than high-poverty white school districts.

The prolonged, race-based miserliness of the state has created an ongoing financial situation in the district that seems to toggle from crisis to calm.

Turk fears that the desired effect of the budget narrative is to limit the options available to the elected board. According to her, as demands for a transition to local governance intensified, the district’s chief financial officer predicted a budget deficit for the next fiscal year “and for the foreseeable future,” which would necessitate cuts in school services and staffing. But when it came time to close out the term of the state-appointed board, the budget was magically balanced.

Which budget scenario is closest to reality Turk isn’t sure, but she worries the intention is to portray the outgoing overseers as budget champions and to set up the incoming elected board as fiscal failures.

Black Families and Criminals

Issues of race also continue to stain every aspect of St. Louis schools and compound the difficulty of reviving democratic governance.

St. Louis is historically one of the most racially segregated school systems in America, but under state-appointed governance, the district phased out its desegregation program. At its peak, St. Louis’s racial integration plan, one of the longest running in the country, involved almost 13,000 black urban students in suburban schools and 1,500 white suburban students who attended urban magnets. But beginning this year, the district is phasing out the desegregation plan, limiting new students participating in the program to siblings of those already enrolled.

While helping to sunset the desegregation program, state-appointed leaders did nothing to address the effects of housing patterns in the city that cause intensely segregated schools. The district continues to have attendance zones that recreate the segregation in the underlying neighborhoods rather than remedy the separate school systems.

Instead of integrating black students with their better-off white peers, the city seems intent on getting rid of them. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, black residents are fleeing the city in record numbers and at a rate that, if it continues, will result in white residents outnumbering black residents by 2025.

Black residents are being pushed out of the city in part because of lack of investment in their neighborhoods. While real estate developers ignore black residential zones, they are busy remaking the central corridor of the city into a playground for young professionals and corporate office workers. City leaders incentivize the development with generous tax abatements that provide millions in discounts for new construction—money that should be used to fund schools and other public services.

City leaders also openly discourage development that would attract parents with school-aged children, with one official recently presenting a hierarchy of “makers” and “takers” in the city that equated “families with children in public schools” to “criminals.”

Bad Actors Baked into the Cake

While black residents and young families with children are on the way out, many of the agents who undermined democratic governance of public schools have not gone anywhere—in fact, they seem more entrenched than ever.

Among the most prominent in the inner circle of the powerful is Rex Sinquefield, a retired billionaire who made his fortune leading a Chicago investment firm that pioneered index funds. Sinquefield emerged in Missouri politics in the early 2000s as a deep-pocketed donor to mostly Republican candidates who aligned with his views on eliminating income taxes and transforming public education.

With a personal mission of “rescuing education from teachers’ unions,” Sinquefield, in 2012, claimed public schools were a plot by the Ku Klux Klan to “hurt… African American children.” The next year he nearly single-handedly bankrolled a campaign to end tenure protection for public school teachers.

In addition to financing candidates, Sinquefield employs an army of lobbyists to press his concerns in the state capital and gives millions to the right-wing think tanks—such as the Show-Me Institute, which he also founded, and Missouri Club for Growth—that produce advocacy materials blasting public schools and promoting charter schools and voucher programs.

In 2017, Sinquefield met in secret with Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s education secretary.

Sinquefield is also a primary funder of the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri (CEAM), a non-profit organization that promotes charter schools, online learning, and voucher programs.

CEAM’s executive director is Laura Slay, owner of a public relations firm that often represents Sinquefield. Laura Slay is a cousin to former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. Sinquefield donated $75,000 to Francis Slay, a Democrat, in 2012, when he was still mayor, and Francis Slay and Sinquefield recently teamed up in a campaign to privatize the St. Louis airport.

As mayor, Slay engineered the decision to hire outside contractors to run the district. After the consulting firm ran the district into the ground, Slay called for the state takeover. Slay also became known as “a recruiter of charter schools,” and he used $750,000 in private donations and $50,000 from the district to contract with Teach For America, the nonprofit that recruits recent college graduates and others to commit to two years of teaching after a short training period.

TFA has continued to be influential in the city not for its teachers but for its leadership pipeline and political work. TFA has financially backed school board candidates multiple times, and two recently elected members to the new board, Adam Layne and Tracee Miller, are former TFA recruits.

Former State Director of Policy for the CEAM Katie Casas is also a former TFA recruit. Casas recently left CEAM to form her own lobbying firm, Nexus Group.

These influential actors, and others, ensure that despite the transition to democratic governance, their power remains baked into the cake of education politics in the district, similar to how, in national government, big money donors and Washington, D.C., lobbyists continue to wield political leverage regardless of who is elected to office.

Charters Schools a Likely Flashpoint

Also binding the hands of the newly elected board are actors in the school system that operate outside the board’s control.

One of the autonomous entities is the district’s new Consortium Partnership Network, a non-profit private corporation set up by the outgoing state-appointed board and the superintendent to govern the district’s lowest-performing schools. It goes into effect in two struggling schools the same day the elected board returns to power.

According to a recent op-ed in a local news outlet, this new arrangement allows an appointed board and a CEO to manage the schools “in the same way as a charter school.” While only two schools will have this new private management, local observers see a slippery slope for the introduction of more private charter management companies into the city’s other struggling schools.

Charter schools, which also operate outside the oversight of the elected board, have been mostly a disaster in St. Louis. The city still holds the distinction of having the largest ever single closing of bricks-and-mortar charter schools in the nation. In a more recent scandal, a charter got caught faking enrollment data to fraudulently obtain hundreds of thousands of dollars in state funding. When the charter was forced to close because of its debt to the state, another charter simply took over the building. One charter that is often praised in the local media as a “success” has a student population that is 60 percent white and Asian in a district whose overall student population is overwhelmingly black.

Charter schools will likely emerge as an early flashpoint to challenge the new elected board. Even board member Jones, who made every attempt to ratchet down conflict in her responses to my recent queries, makes her opposition to charters apparent, telling me she supported a moratorium for new charters. “I believe that we should stabilize and improve the schools that we currently have before deciding upon the opening of new entities,” she says. “Furthermore, charter school[s] drain money from the district. St. Louis Public Schools needs all of its resources to adequately provide for each student effectively.”

However, Turk points out the city’s website continues to host a page with a message from former Mayor Slay that encourages the development of charter schools, despite the leadership turnover to new Mayor Lyda Krewson. Krewson’s son, in fact, is opening a new charter school.

When There’s Only One Side

The stories politicians love to tell about “grand bargains” and “meeting in the middle” never seem to consider whether one party’s intent is to ensure the very process of seeking compromise in a democratic system no longer even exists.

In urban school systems under state control, like St. Louis’s, there was no need for two sides to agree on how to go forward, because one “side”—the side more reflective of the desires of the students, parents, and teachers who populate the system—was structurally eliminated. It remains to be seen whether that side was eliminated for good.

Jones would likely not consider that as even a possible outcome. Instead, she prefers to see the district’s emergence from authoritative rule in the context of her own personal struggle. Drawing from her years of serving on a neutered board, attending dozens of meetings where deliberations didn’t matter, she says, “The lesson I’ve learned is that if you believe in something, go for it and never give up. I’ve always believed that my community could make this change, and I’m proud to say we did it.”

Turk is more wary of the challenges ahead. “We know there are influential people in the community who do not want the elected board returning to power,” she warns. “They will continue to work to undermine the elected board and the public schools.”

Both perspectives seem relevant in a dialogue about the possibility of restoring democracy to our nation’s politics. But the lesson still to be learned from these urban schools is that restoring rule by the people will be an illusory gesture if those who undermined democratic governance to begin with get to carry on with business as usual.

(Photo by Jeff Bryant)