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He takes St. Louis as his prime example.,
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.