Financial test proposed for families in school desegregation program
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 18, 2012 - Families that have a certain level of income would have to pay for their children to take part in the area's voluntary school desegregation plan under a proposal advanced by the Clayton school district.
If it receives approval from all districts in the desegregation plan – and from other parties in the case -- the financial means test would require payment on a sliding scale from families whose income is above that required for participation in the federal free and reduced school lunch program.
The requirement would go into effect July 1, 2014.
Since the program began in the 1980s, the only factor considered for transfer students was race: African-American students in the city of St. Louis could attend schools in participating suburban districts, and white students in St. Louis County could attend magnet schools in the city.
The remedy rested on arguments that black students were the victims of unconstitutional discrimination.
William Douthit, the lawyer who now represents the family of Minnie Liddell, the plaintiff who filed suit 40 years ago, said he does not want to see any financial test imposed on potential transfer students. Now that the program operates under a consent decree approved by the federal court, such a change would set a “dangerous precedent,” he said.
“The constitutional violation was not based on your financial status,” Douthit said. “It was based on your race.”
He added, “It seems a little disingenuous at this point to change the rules of the road.”
Under the current program, county schools that accept students from the city are reimbursed $7,000 for each student. The proposal was approved for submission to the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp. at a meeting of the Clayton school board in October. It notes that the district has not received the full funding it costs to educate a Clayton student since 2003.
“The school district of Clayton has determined some families in the [voluntary student transfer] program have the financial means to supplement all or part of the cost of educating their children,” the proposal says.
“For example, the school district of Clayton has experienced situations where families living in Clayton have opted to move to the city of St. Louis and have continued educating their children in Clayton schools by participation in the VST program. Thus, families who previously lived in Clayton and moved to housing in the city have been able to educate their children in Clayton schools at no additional cost to the family.”
Because of that situation, the resolution continues, the Clayton school district “believes that some of these families have the financial ability to contribute to the cost of their children’s education and that it should not subsidize the cost of education for these families. A financial means test for participating families will enable the VICC program to identify those families that should be able to contribute to the cost of their children’s education.”
Under the plan, families not eligible to take part in the free and reduced lunch program would have to submit federal tax returns to give proof of their income.
“The amount participating families pay to the receiving district,” the proposal says, “would be based on a sliding fee scale developed by VICC officials and approved by the VICC Board which would consider the family’s gross income as well as the number of dependents.”
In general, the proposal adds, “the VST program would remain a race-based program serving African-American students from the city of St. Louis.”
The proposal was the subject of preliminary discussion by the VICC board on Nov. 30, but no action was taken.
Early stages of discussion
David Glaser, chief executive of VICC, emphasized that discussion of a means test is in its “very, very preliminary” stages.
“I guess time will tell whether it will go anywhere or not,” he said. “ If there is a decision, it won’t be made for some time. I don’t think most superintendents at this time are planning on taking it back to their local boards of education.”
Glaser said he had no details about assertions that families had moved from Clayton into the city to take advantage of a Clayton education as part of the deseg plan. He did note that as opposed to many county districts, Clayton has a program that accepts tuition-paying students who do not live in the district.
For the next school year, tuition for kindergarten through fifth grade will be $10,820, rising to $16,250 for grades 6-12. The district currently has 64 tuition students enrolled.
While a means test could help Clayton recoup some of the difference in cost between the $7,000 VICC reimbursement and what the district actually pays for a student’s education, Glaser said such a financial factor “is inconsistent with the original intent of the program, which was to be purely a race-based program. It potentially could lead to districts shopping for students to maximize their revenue.”
He noted that a sliding scale for families – paying a certain percentage of the difference between $7,000 and what a district’s education actually costs, depending on how much a family makes over the free and reduced lunch scale – could become complicated very quickly.
“Some families wouldn’t want to turn in a tax return,” he said.
And if families were to start a school year, then stop paying tuition, Glaser said VICC wouldn’t “have the resources to become a collection agency, nor do we want to.”
He added, “I think when you think about all the potential implications, while initially you might understand why the Clayton board would be interested in considering it, there is probably only a limited number of families that it would involve.”
Plus, he noted, in discussion of the plan at VICC’s meeting of superintendents in November, one commented that “if you don’t have the space, you don’t have to take that child. So this isn’t really a VICC issue. This is really an internal policy issue.”
Glaser said that a means test for deseg families would require the unanimous consent of all participating districts, and perhaps other parties in the case as well, such as the city schools, the state of Missouri and the original plaintiffs, including the Liddell family.
Neither the city schools nor the state had any comment on the issue.
Glaser also said that of the nine other desegregation programs around the country, he wasn’t aware of any that had a means test for participating families.
At its meeting on Oct. 27, when it voted to have Superintendent Sharmon Wilkinson take the proposal to the VICC meeting in November, members of the Clayton school board expressed concerns about the effect a means test might have.
“I don’t know that it is something that would really strengthen our program,” board member Susan Buse said.
Brad Bernstein said he thought a means test could result in even more economic diversity in the district, adding: “A proposal such as this has been a long time coming.”
He said he had heard good feedback from those who had heard about the idea.
Board member Kristen Reddington said:
"I do worry that we may have people who might make other choices if this were to happen. However, I do think that there are many parents from the voluntary transfer program who do have means to help support the school district. And I think a simple ask of them explaining that this is an opportunity that they could give and that would be I think an appropriate thing that you could do. So that’s another way of projecting that.”
And board President Jane Klamer added:
"To the extent this might incentivize somebody to move into Clayton if they want their kids to go to Clayton, then that would be more to the good as far as I’m concerned.”
Race, not finances
Douthit, the lawyer for the original plaintiffs, said he did not want to impugn the motives of the Clayton board or disparage its attempt to bolster its finances. But he said if the district needs more money to maintain its high-quality education, it should talk with elected representatives or with business and community leaders.
The burden should not fall on families who, according to the outcome of the longstanding lawsuit, had been discriminated against solely because of race.
“I’m certain this is a good-faith gesture,” he told the Beacon. “But to have the victims pay a penalty in order to take advantage of the remedy for a constitutional violation kind of rings hollow to me.
“I hope that would never be the intent, but when you talk about the financial means testing as way to level the playing field, it’s a different kind of playing field. To put a dollar price tag on that strikes at the heart of fundamental justice.”
He recalled earlier civil rights cases where minority families, no matter what their financial status was, were unable to buy homes in certain areas because of restrictive covenants that were later found to be unconstitutional.
“They had the financial wherewithal,” Douthit said, “and they still couldn’t get equal access to education or housing.”
If such a fundamental change to the deseg program were added, he said, it would have to be approved by all of the parties in the case and by the federal court that approved the settlement agreement in 1999.
“I think it would be difficult for me to stand in front of a group of my clients and tell them, those of you that have the financial wherewithal, your rights to a remedy are separate from those that do not.”