School Choice & Charters

St. Louis Plan for Free Private Schools in Doubt

By Catherine Gewertz — September 12, 2001 5 min read
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A group of St. Louis pastors is racing against the clock to open a cluster of inner-city private schools that will charge no tuition to low-income families. But the ambitious plan hinges on an apparently unprecedented financing scheme: using federal child-care money to operate a school.

Some school reformers have hailed the plan as an example of how outside-the-box thinking can benefit needy children. More than 2,100 children were signed up, teachers were hired, equipment was on the way, and workers were scrambling to have one leased building ready this week and three more ready next week. Two more schools are slated to open next spring.

But even as final preparations for the St. Louis Academies were being made, sections of the voluminous federal regulations governing use of the child-care money were uncovered late last week that could jeopardize the plan.

Tim Daniels, the retired U.S. Marine lieutenant colonel who has led eight pastors of the Church of God in Christ in the effort, said he and an Arizona-based charter school consulting firm that has committed millions of dollars in loans to the plan had found nothing in federal rules that bars the use of money from the Child Care and Development Fund block grant to run a school. That federal aid is typically used to pay child-care costs for low-income families.

But a federal official told Education Week that a section of the regulations states that such funds cannot be used to provide services for students in grades 1-12 “during the regular school day"; services for which students would receive credit toward graduation; or “instructional services that supplant or duplicate the academic program of any public or private school.”

“I think it’s pretty clear that the regulations don’t allow something like this,” said Karen Tvedt, the director of the policy division of the Child Care Bureau, which oversees the CCDF program for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “The intent of CCDF is to support child-care access for low-income families. It’s not intended to supplement the educational system.

“The money for child care wouldn’t go very far,” she said, “if you used it to supplement the educational system.”

Unexpected Restrictions

Mr. Daniels was taken aback when informed of the regulations’ restrictive language. He said he had discussed the idea with officials who oversee CCDF grants in Missouri and was assured that as long as the St. Louis Academies were licensed, for-profit child-care providers— he has already begun the licensing process—they could use the federal money to operate as they wished.

“I am really surprised,” he said. “I checked that up and down. I’m going to have to look into this.”

Reliance on federal aid was not in the plan when Mr. Daniels and the ministers from the Church of God in Christ, a predominantly black Pentecostal denomination, first envisioned the academies two years ago.

Frustrated that schoolchildren often did not receive a high-quality education in St. Louis, where only 48 percent of a given freshman class graduates, the ministers planned to start eight charter schools. The group persuaded Phoenix-based ABS School Services, which helps 170 charter schools nationally, to commit $20 million in loans to the project.

But the group couldn’t secure a sponsor. Under Missouri law, charter schools must be sponsored by a public school district or a higher education institution, and neither receives any compensation for overseeing them. The St. Louis district and two universities told the St. Louis Academies group that they could not afford to supervise the new charter schools without more resources.

The pastors and Mr. Daniels decided they could back down or get creative. “This plan was born of desperation,” Mr. Daniels said. “As Christians, we decided we can wait another year and lose thousands of kids to dropout or incarceration, or we could help them and open the schools.”

Mr. Daniels suggested the group investigate using CCDF money and other federal aid to tide them over for a year until they could seek charter status again. They were optimistic they could enlist a sponsor next year if they persuaded private donors to provide money to offset supervision costs.

A Patchwork of Funds

Suddenly, last spring, the group that had planned to open charter schools found itself planning to open private schools, and on a quick timetable. The group cut the number of schools to six, to serve a total of 3,000 children—7 percent of St. Louis’ public school enrollment of 43,500—and budgeted for $15.2 million the first year.

Under the revised plan, some schools would serve K-8 children, and some would serve those in kindergarten through grade 10. Each was to focus on a theme, such as science and technology. The organizers leased six former religious school sites and enlisted a former superintendent to design curricula and hire teachers.

Optimistic, they unveiled their plan at a public rally in mid-August, with Mr. Daniels declaring that “the eyes of the nation will be on St. Louis for this next year, and we will be up to the task.” Missouri state Sen. Peter Kinder, a Republican, proclaimed his support, saying the group was “stepping out with a leap of faith.” At an open-house the next day, parents grabbed applications by the score. One woman told the St. Louis Post- Dispatch that she “jumped for joy” when she heard about the plan.

The way Mr. Daniels figured it, the St. Louis Academies could bring in $3,500 per child each year in federal child-care money. The schools would then bolster that with funds from federal programs for free and reduced-price meals and infant-toddler care, which they planned to provide, along with before- and after-school care for school-age children.

In the case of the CCDF money, families would have to apply for the aid through their local family-services office, stating that their incomes were low enough to make them eligible, and that they needed the child care to enable them to work or obtain job training. They would specify the licensed center to which payments would be directed. Mr. Daniels said that St. Louis Academies personnel would make helping with such applications a routine part of the schools’ enrollment process.

But Doris Hallford, who oversees CCDF spending in Missouri as an assistant deputy director in the state department of social services, said that even casting aside the legal issue about whether the federal money can be used to fund a school, she doubted a school could subsist largely on CCDF payments.

“Our rates are below-market,” she said. “I don’t know how you could run a full-day school on that.”

St. Louis district officials, for their part, have adopted a neutral stance toward the academies.

“Opening a brand-new school is a challenging undertaking at best,” district spokesman Chester Edmonds said. “We will have to wait and see how things go.”

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