Wed August 14, 2013
FAQ: What You Need To Know About Missouri School Transfers
Welcome to our guide to the Missouri school transfers situation. This is a living document which will be updated as the news changes and we gather more information.
Have more questions? Tweet us at @stlpublicradio or leave it in the comments below.
Last updated 8/20/13
In short, this law allows students to transfer from districts which are unaccredited to those which are accredited.
Why are we just hearing about a 20 year old law?
Recent legal action - that’s why. Here’s what happened:
- The May 2012 opinion of St. Louis Circuit Court Judge David Vincent called the law an unfunded mandate that violated Missouri’s Hancock Amendment.
- The provision of the Hancock Amendment most pertinent to the school transfers process protects municipalities from having to go through with unfunded state mandates.
- However, the Missouri Supreme Court’s ruling on Breitenfeld v. School District of Clayton on June 11, 2013 reversed Judge Vincent’s 2012 lower court decision and found that state statute 167.131 does not violate the Hancock Amendment.
So, where does that leave us?
The three unaccredited districts in Missouri currently are Normandy, Riverview Gardens and Kansas City. Because Kansas City is part of a pending lawsuit, that district does not have to implement the transfers for this school year, but both Normandy and Riverview Gardens do.
There are two unaccredited districts that this law currently impacts: North St. Louis County’s Normandy and Riverview Gardens. Those districts selected Francis Howell, Mehlville and Kirkwood as the receiving, accredited districts that they will pay for transportation to. These five districts are the main players in this situation.
Although the unaccredited districts have to foot the bill for tuition to any school in the same or adjacent county, they only have to provide transportation costs for those three districts they selected.
These districts vary greatly in terms of number of students, race and income.
As you can see, unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens are relatively small districts compared to the receiving schools. Normandy and Riverview Gardens are predominantly black, and the receiving districts are mostly white. Some alleged race was a motivating factor behind the outrage Francis Howell parents expressed over the influx of transfers.
The districts differ in other areas as well. The receiving districts are affluent, with the percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunches well under Missouri’s average of 50 percent. In the two unaccredited districts, more than 90 percent of their students are in the program.
More than 2,600 students applied for transfer. Considering the small size of the two unaccredited districts, that made up a large portion of their student body.
The results of the lottery differ greatly from what parents selected as their first choice. Below you can see the preliminary results of the lottery, and compare it to what parents had hoped for.
Districts were allowed to restrict the number of incoming transfers if they claimed to have limited space for the students. As a result, many Riverview Gardens parents weren’t selected in the lottery to go to a school with transportation provided. Those parents will either have to pay for transportation to another district, or stay in their unaccredited one. To counter this, groups have begun assembling for legal action, but we’ll get to that later.
What’s the accreditation process?
By state law, the state Board of Education, classifies (accredits) the 520 districts using the Missouri School Improvement Program, a set of standards established by DESE. The first MSIP standards were released in the 1990-1991 school year.
What does it mean to not be accredited?
Riverview Gardens and Normandy were declared unaccredited because they failed to meet at least six of the 14 MSIP standards in place between 2006 and 2012. Riverview lost its accreditation in June 2007, and Normandy in September 2012.
Those standards were:
- Academic performance, determined by scores on Missouri Assessment Program tests in six academic areas
- ACT scores
- The number of advanced placement and career education courses offered
- Placement in college and career education programs
- Graduation and attendance rates
- The academic performance of subgroups like disabled students or non-native English speakers
At least one of the “points” had to come from academic performance.
State law establishes the consequences for failing to meet MSIP standards, including a state takeover or a dissolution of the district. When Riverview Gardens and Normandy lost accreditation, intervention could not happen for at least two years. (For example, Riverview Gardens first lost accreditation in 2007, but did not have a Special Administrative Board appointed until 2010) Changes that will go into effect on August 28 allow the state to step in immediately, but also expand the intervention options.
Starting last year, DESE began using a new set of standards to determine accreditation. A department spokeswoman says while most classifications will take place after three years of data have been collected, earlier reviews are also possible.
Why didn't Normandy and Riverview Gardens meet those standards?
The story of Riverview Gardens and Normandy is the story of education in areas with widespread poverty. The percentage of students who receive free or reduced lunches in both districts is well above the state average - in Normandy, it’s nearly 92 percent this year, and in Riverview Gardens, more than 93 percent, (The state average is just about 50 percent. A family of four making $43,568 is eligible for a reduced-price lunch; for free lunches, the eligibility is $30,615 for a family of four.)
Both districts also had unique aspects that may have contributed to their loss of accreditation. In March 2007, St. Louis County prosecutors indicted former Riverview Gardens superintendent Henry Williams for stealing $100,000 from the district. He pleaded no contest to the charges in 2009 and was ordered to pay restitution. Accreditation is based on academic performance, but school employees told St. Louis Public Radio at the time of the state takeover in 2010 they believed the theft contributed to the academic problems by leaving the district with fewer resources.
Also in 2010, the state dissolved the unaccredited Wellston school district and ordered its 550 students to attend classes in Normandy. A big unknown at the time was the impact that would have on Normandy’s academic achievement, although data from the 2012 accreditation process shows that Normandy would not have earned accreditation with or without the former Wellston students.
The guidelines for the transfer process outlined by the Missouri Department of Elementary & Secondary Education (DESE) say that parents should have notified both their district of residence and the district to which they want their children to transfer by Aug. 1.
What are the legal issues at hand in this process?
There are several legal elements and questions involved. A few of them:
- The use of a lottery system to place students in receiving districts where there are more applicants than available spots.
- The Aug. 1 deadline set forth in the DESE guidelines.
- Whether or not school districts have a legal right to refuse transfer students. DESE’s guidelines state that receiving districts should outline class sizes and student-teacher ratio limits on their websites – however, by setting these limits, districts argue that they have the ability to turn away students that push their numbers higher than their stated capacities. The ACLU sent letters to the Kirkwood and Mehlville school districts advising that it’s unconstitutional to “arbitrarily refuse to accept students.”
- Overall, DESE states their guidelines are non-regulatory and not legally binding – however, they were used by districts during the transfer application process.
The unaccredited district will have to foot the bill for tuition to any district in the same or adjacent county, as well as transportation to the three chosen districts. As of yet, there's no official cost of what that will be.
However, there are estimates. The most recent estimate is that the cost to the two districts will be $35,397,000.
It's possible that Normandy will run out of money this year. Normandy only has $8.6 million in reserves, while Riverview Gardens, on the other hand, has $28.6 million in reserves.
Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said the state might have to step in.
"Once we know that number then we will work with the legislature to secure the necessary funding to cover their tuition costs, their transportation costs, and the cost of providing their current program for their remaining students through the balance of this school year," Nicastro said.
As of right now, not much. In October 2012, the state Board of Education agreed with DESE’s recommendation to grant the St. Louis Public Schools provisional accreditation for meeting seven of the then-14 MSIP standards. The transfer law applies only to those districts that are not accredited.
As we mentioned above, there are new standards in place to determine accreditation. The first reviews should take place after three years of data collection, although the state board can step in and review at any time.
A St. Louis Public Schools spokesman says 80 parents from Riverview Gardens and Normandy contacted the district about enrolling their children in city schools. As of Aug. 8, 25 had filled out the paperwork.
In 2012, five St. Louis city firefighters sued in an effort to force three suburban districts to enroll their children as students, and force the St. Louis Public Schools to pay the tuition. On August 14, 2013, both sides moved to dismiss the case.
The short answer is that it depends on the student, but in some cases, the answer could be yes.
Even though schools must adhere to state standards, they often differ in how they teach students.
“Different schools may actually be using different curriculums,” said Kathleen Sullivan Brown, an associate professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “They may be at a different point in their learning process, and they may use different learning strategies that the transfer students aren’t familiar with.”
That sort of change can be jarring to some students, Brown said, especially in mathematics, where mastery of one skill is critical to the mastery of the next. She said younger students will have the easiest time dealing with the change, and the process could become increasingly more difficult with older students.
A large group of new students can pose challenges to teachers, as well, as they will need to ensure their academic expectations are appropriate. But once students and faculty begin settling into the school year, Brown said potential classroom challenges will begin to ease.
“I really think that the teachers, once they get the kids and once they get the information that they need, they will do what they’ve always done, which is take every child and try to help them reach their potential,” Brown said.
Have more questions? Tweet us at @stlpublicradio or leave it in the comments below.
Francis Howell/Normandy Busing