This opinion piece originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
For the last three years, The Opportunity Trust has invested in our most vulnerable children by providing financial and other support to families, educators, schools, and nonprofit organizations focused on creating world-class learning opportunities that are tangibly improving student outcomes.
We have remained silent when critics have simplified and mischaracterized our work and its intent because we support charter public schools alongside district public schools. We have avoided divisive rhetorical debates so we can fully focus on the urgent needs of children and schools.
However, repeated attacks on the work of The Opportunity Trust and me personally are hurting parents, educators, nonprofits and their leaders who are trying to build the coalitions needed to move our education system forward. I’d like to respond to mischaracterizations made by Gloria Nolan and others in opinion pieces in this newspaper and start setting the record straight.
First, I have no desire to “burn down” anything, as Nolan stated once again on April 22.
I came to this work because I experienced — and overcame — educational inequity. Despite growing up in poverty in a small town outside of St. Louis, I became the first in my family to graduate college. Two years later, in contrast, my younger brother dropped out of high school.
Unfortunately, my story is the exception when it should be the rule. The belief that every child has potential, and that our schools have a responsibility to cultivate and unleash it, is what drives our work.
To that end, The Opportunity Trust supports expanding high-quality public school options. It doesn’t matter if the schools are district public schools or charter public schools. Both must improve and work together to create a stronger system. Our goal has never been to replace St. Louis Public Schools. However, we do believe that bold change is needed to deliver on our promise of a high-quality public education for every child in St. Louis.
Furthermore, we do not support for-profit schools of any kind, as Nolan also wrongly asserted. For-profit charter schools no longer exist in St. Louis. We have advocated for legislation in Missouri that would ensure every child receives the same public school funding irrespective of whether they attend a charter public school or district public school. That same legislation prohibits for-profit charter schools and has progressed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
In addition, we support families and educators working together to design and launch new schools and redesign existing ones. We support this work in both district and charter schools.
Those seeking to improve outcomes in St. Louis Public Schools should heed research that demonstrates this is the most likely pathway to school improvement. We embrace the notion that one size does not fit all, and diverse kinds of high-quality, open enrollment public schools are needed for every child to thrive. It creates a healthy system that, if nurtured, can foster learning and improvement.
Lastly, we believe this work cannot happen in isolation. This is why we are investing in collaboration across schools and other nonprofits. One of our partners, Navigate STL Schools, provides clear and unbiased information to help parents navigate the city’s complex system of district, charter and private schools. We have invested in culturally relevant libraries in both district and charter schools through unique partnerships with St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature.
We provide stipends, professional development, mentorship and coaching to educators in districts and charters who work together in regional fellowships. We’ve incubated and launched the STL PreK Cooperative, adding more than 300 free, high-quality preschool seats through a new collaboration between schools and early childhood centers.
This work is vital if we want children to have access to better educational opportunities.
I believe that Nolan and I would agree that providing every child in St. Louis access to a high-quality, public education accessible to all is imperative. We just disagree on how to get there.
Let’s resist oversimplification and for-or-against rhetoric. It divides those of us who must work together to tackle these complex challenges. Instead, let’s lean into our differences, seek to better understand others’ points of view, find common ground to build from, and work together to ensure that every year more children in our community are in schools — district or charter — where they are thriving.
Eric Scroggins is founder and chief executive of The Opportunity Trust