The recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling in Brietenbart v. Clayton and the subsequent events shine a light on a difficult proposition: How do we support families wanting the best education possible for their children and help struggling school districts get better? The case was brought by families in the then unaccredited City of St. Louis Schools wanting to send their children to the affluent, successful Clayton School District. They argued that their unaccredited district was not giving their children the education they deserved and worth what the family was paying in taxes. The court ruled in favor of the families. The impact will be felt in the Normandy and Riverview Gardens School Districts in the St. Louis region and in the Kansas City public schools.
The ruling states that families living in areas where the local public schools are unaccredited can send their children to any other accredited public school in that region. The unaccredited district would be obligated to pay the “tuition” at the new district for each child that left their district. The potential impact for children and all school districts in the region ranges from small to significant and leads to a lot of unanswered questions: Can an already struggling school district pay the tuition and transportation costs at other schools when they are financially strapped? What happens to the students who stay and the quality of their education? Will moving children to another district bring about better education outcomes for those students? What implications are there for the receiving districts?
On an individual level it is easy to understand and support any parent’s desire to access the best educational opportunity possible for their children. That said, history has taught us that moving students to “better” schools has had mixed results. St. Louis’s “Deseg” or Voluntary Inter-District Choice Corporation program showed that students who left their district were not always socially accepted by the receiving school districts, had longer commutes making it harder for parents to be involved, and did not always have better academic outcomes.
So what can we do? Can we both support families and strengthen public education? I think we can. If we believe that a strong community has strong public education at its core, then we encourage families to stay and be part of the work of making every child realize their highest academic potential. To do this, we must address the challenges that exist both in and outside the schools. We must partner with our school districts and other organizations around a common goal so that together we can have the kind of targeted and rapid impact that is needed. When we improve the housing stock, provide greater access to health care, create more economic activity and help individuals get decent paying jobs, we will continue to help schools get better. By staying in their neighborhood, parents have fewer transportation barriers that prevent participation in school events and families invest in the schools right in their community.
When all of these things happen together, we change the tide and the story for the currently unaccredited districts. Together, if we both truly support families and strengthen public education, the districts will regain accreditation and be a place where parents chose to send their children.