Many school choice enthusiasts think school choice legislation can be passed if only a number of minority political leaders can be won to the cause. Polls show that African Americans are among the strongest supporters of vouchers, tax credits, and charter schools (see "What Americans Think about Their Schools," features, Fall 2007). If minority leaders can be weaned away from traditional alliances, the underlying public support will translate into effective legislative action, especially if choice laws focus on schools in urban areas.
All of that sounds convincing in theory, but the reality can be quite different. In state after state, when legislators introduce proposals aimed at moving students out of failing schools, activists emerge to delay, block, or sabotage the plans. The legislative history of the 2005 and 2006 tuition grant proposals in the Missouri House of Representatives offers some insights into how complex the political game can become, even when support from minority legislators is substantial.
The Missouri plan was designed to avoid the controversial label "school voucher." Rather than reallocating dollars slated for education, supporters proposed to give tax credits to individuals and businesses that donated money to nonprofit organizations providing low-income students with scholarship grants to attend private schools (see Table 1). Described this way, the legislation had the initial support of a broad coalition of Republicans and Democrats, blacks and whites. Not surprisingly, the teachers unions mounted a vigorous campaign against the bill. Under that pressure, the tuition grant coalition fell apart during the legislative process, revealing sharp divisions within the ranks of blacks and Republicans.
As elsewhere, school reform in Missouri takes place amid racially polarized municipal politics. School budget crises are continuous, teachers union leadership is combative, and minority community involvement is generally ineffective. Although the legislative maneuvering took place in Jefferson City, the state capital, the real audience for the tuition grant debate was the city of St. Louis.
The politics of the St. Louis schools is a black community affair. Many of the current school leaders were in the forefront of efforts to desegregate the schools beginning in the 1970s. Jim Buford, president of the St. Louis Urban League and founder of the Black Leadership Roundtable, explained, "public schools are engrained into the fabric of the community." African Americans represent about half of the city's population, and 81 percent of the public school enrollment. About 80 percent of St. Louis students are in the free and reduced-price school lunch program. Unfortunately, the quality of the schools declined sharply after their peak 1983 AAA state rating; the dropout rate is high and student achievement low. By 2005, the district was only partially accredited, a serious situation with no clear solution at hand.
St. Louis has a strong public school cartel, an alliance of teachers union leaders, central board administrators, and various public-school interest groups that has an established routine for managing the schools and is typically skeptical of any proposal for change. The cartel acts as a veto player in school policymaking. Members are linked by churches, social organizations, and school ties, and these personal and political relationships drive the group's success. Political scientist Marion Orr refers to such connections as "bonds of personalism."
The city's print media--including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which enjoys a national reputation--monitor the black leadership class and report on its interaction with the school system. St. Louis also has three African American weeklies that are widely read by both black opinion leaders and the public. Dr. Donald Suggs, a dentist and school supporter, owns the award-winning St. …