Minority students are falling behind in the public school system. The graduation rate for Missouri’s white students is 87.4 percent; for black students it’s fully 10 points lower—77 percent. Black students don’t do so well as their white peers on the Communication Arts section of the MAP test. They lag behind on the Mathematics section of MAP too.
But the gap is much larger in St. Louis than in Kansas City. In Kansas City, the graduation rate for black students hovers around the state average. In St. Louis City, it’s an appalling 58 percent. One important reason is Kansas City’s charter school advantage. Kansas City has a vibrant system of 18 charter schools. St. Louis, in contrast, has only 7. Many of those charter schools serve minority students, giving them additional opportunities and discourage them from dropping out. Policymakers in St. Louis and Jefferson City should find ways to expand charter schools in St. Louis so that minority children there have the same opportunities as minority children in Kansas City.
Missouri’s urban public schools don’t do a good job of preparing minority students for life and work. And unfortunately, many minority families in St. Louis and Kansas City can’t afford homes in suburban school districts, nor can they afford to send their kids to private prep schools or tutoring as many wealthier families do. Minority teens who aren’t doing well in the public schools may feel that the only alternative is to drop out.
But some Kansas City schools are beating the odds. For example, Don Bosco Education Center and Hogan Preparatory Academy have black graduation rates above Missouri’s average. At Don Bosco Education Center, the black graduation rate is a respectable 86 percent. Hogan Preparatory Academy has an outstanding black graduation rate of 98.3 percent.
These aren’t traditional public high schools. Don Bosco Education Center serves at-risk teens. Hogan Preparatory Academy focuses on college prep. Both serve a large proportion of minority students. Both are Kansas City charter schools sponsored by Central Missouri State University.
Charter schools excel because they aren’t stifled by all the counterproductive requirements the state places on other public schools. With the guidance of a sponsoring organization, charter schools are free to try new curricula and innovative teaching methods. Charter schools may emphasize a specific subject area, like technology or foreign language. All these factors contribute to charter schools’ success.
Most importantly, students choose to attend charter schools. Charter schools can create a more diverse environment than traditional public schools because they enroll children from different parts of the city. Parents who choose their child’s school feel that they have a positive effect on their child’s education. And charter schools must compete for students, a process that forces them to be accountable to parents and improves the entire education system. A National Bureau of Economic Research study found that competition from charter schools causes the test scores of students in traditional public schools to go up.
Don Bosco Education Center and Hogan Preparatory Academy show that competition gives children more options and keeps them in school. The resulting high graduation rates mean that the schools better prepare students for life and build a stronger community. Missouri should expand its charter school system so that more students can benefit. Currently there are 25 charter schools in Missouri, 18 of them in Kansas City. We need more charter schools in St. Louis, and we should allow children across the state to attend charter schools too. Black and white students graduate at about the same rate in Kansas City, but in St. Louis black students are much more likely to drop out. If St. Louis had as many charter schools as Kansas City, St. Louis students would have the same opportunities as Kansas City students and the gap between the graduation rates might close.
Greater competition would ensure that students go to the schools that are right for them rather than to the schools that just happen to be nearby. Currently, more than a third of the black students in St. Louis City don’t graduate. We should give these students more choices so that dropping out isn’t the only alternative to the public school down the block.
Timothy B. Lee is a policy analyst, and Sarah Brodsky is a research assistant, at the Show-Me Institute.