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In school transfer case, judge must solve intricate puzzle

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 8, 2012 - School choice is a hot topic in education today, but as lawyers for all sides in the St. Louis school transfer case prepare their final arguments, they are faced with a range of choices that are difficult if not impossible to reconcile.

Over three days this week, in the court of St. Louis County Circuit Judge David Lee Vincent III, attorneys for the St. Louis and Clayton school districts as well as taxpayers in those districts, the state of Missouri and plaintiff Gina Breitenfeld argued over how to implement a law that on its face seems clear:

Students who live in an unaccredited school district have the right to transfer to an adjacent district that is accredited, with their home district paying the tuition and transportation and the receiving district having no discretion about how many students it must accept.

The Missouri Supreme Court upheld the law in 2010 but sent the case back to Vincent’s court for a trial on how it should be implemented. Here are the pieces of the puzzle he will have to try to put together:

  • If thousands of students transfer from the city to accredited suburban schools, as projected by a telephone survey, St. Louis Public Schools say they won’t have enough money to operate for the students left behind, and their progress toward regaining accreditation will stop.
  • And if those thousands of students flock to just a few choice districts, like Clayton, those districts say they will be overwhelmed by the influx and unable to offer the quality of education that attracted the transfers in the first place.
  • But if the law as written isn’t enforced, students living in St. Louis won’t have the choice to attend class in an accredited school district unless they pay for the privilege the state says they are entitled to for free.
  • And the law would give transfer rights not just to students who now attend St. Louis Public Schools but all students who live in the city, even those who attend private or parochial schools, charter schools or county schools under the voluntary desegregation program, which does not include all county districts.

Planning, possibilities

Two of the words heard most often as the nine lawyers questioned expert witnesses were planning and possible.

How possible would it be for county districts to plan for a sudden spurt in enrollment without having the time to plan in advance? And how possible would it be for the city schools to educate the students who chose not to transfer if its budget were wiped out by transportation and tuition?

Much of the debate came back to a telephone survey, commissioned by the Clayton School District and conducted by Terry Jones of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, that concluded that more than 15,000 students would leave the city for accredited county districts — 3,500 of them going to Clayton, which now has only 2,500 students.

For the districts trying to limit the scope of transfers, those figures show how impossible it would be to provide education without having some discretion over the number of students accepted.

Asked whether it would be possible to use trailers, or split schedules, or year-round school as tools to handle a suddenly larger student population, St. Louis School Superintendent Kelvin Adams — who worked in New Orleans when that district had to recover from Hurricane Katrina — had a quick opinion of those solutions:

“I think they’re criminal. I think it would be segregation again…. It would not be the best educational environment.”

He also rejected comparisons to Joplin after it was devastated by a tornado last May.

But attorneys seeking to limit the scope of the remedy, concentrating not on the thousands of possible transfers but on the solution being sought only for Savanna and Elle Breitenfeld, continually cast doubt on the results of the telephone survey and tried to get incremental answers:

Could a district survive if it had many additional students, or if it lost this much money in transportation and tuition costs?

Elkin Kistner, lawyer for the Breitenfelds, dismissed the survey entirely, saying:

“I don’t believe in the Jones report. It’s unreliable.”

PIN responders weigh in

While planning and possibilities were common topics in the trial, notably absent was the plaintiff. Gina Breitenfeld observed the proceedings on Monday but did not return, and no students, parents or others who would be most directly affected were called to testify.

To provide an additional perspective, sources in the Public Insight Network responded with their views of the so-called Turner case and the remedies it provided. Here is what some of them have told the Beacon. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Amy White, teacher:

Inclusion of students from (St. Louis Public Schools) would enhance the diversity of student populations in Clayton and Webster Groves, benefiting all students. This is an issue of class. As long as Missouri does not have an effective formula for equitable distribution of funds to school districts, SLPS will have a difficult time improving.

Stacy Washington, member of Ladue School Board:

This solution makes absolutely no sense. Neighborhood schools with high parental involvement and engaged teachers create good schools. To burden already cash-strapped county districts with providing classroom space and adequate teaching staff for students that may or may not return year after year is lunacy. There are so many variables involved. Will the funding follow? Will the students be successful in a new environment where they begin the day after an hour-long commute? How about the community aspect? Children bond over after-school activities and playdates. How can a child participate in his new community if he is shuttled off by bus for an hour-long ride home to his neighborhood. How will the county districts fund the new buildings that will be required in order to maintain DESE mandated class size requirements? These are just a few of the problems that this "solution" presents the districts involved.

Of course the best solution is the one that no one wants to discuss. Choice. Any unaccredited district should immediately be dissolved and vouchers issued for each student. Private schools educate children for far less than the $16,000 a pupil expenditure currently wasted in the city schools. Of course everyone will scream about the Blaine amendment to the Missouri Constitution. This is an excellent time to place the repeal of that amendment on the ballot and allow the voters to decide in favor of school children.

Joseph Higgs, teacher and father of five home-schooled children:

The St. Louis metropolitan area is already seen as a region, not just a collection of municipalities. Allowing a child from a failing school district to attend a neighboring and successful district is the most appropriate way to provide a quality education. As a region, one municipality cannot sit idly by and believe they will be immune to the educational failure of a nearby district.

Districts don't fail overnight. The overall failure of a district to maintain the proper standard of education is a cultural problem. In the case of St. Louis, it appears that fashion has a much higher cultural value than education. The only way to force quality education in the city would be to bring in private, for-profit group to run the district.

The company would then be paid based on student performance, not attendance.

Mary Diboll, retired SLPS teacher:

The St. Louis Public Schools will continue to fail if the motivated parents continue to take their children out of the system. The money available to the system will be reduced, and the students who remain will be high needs students.

The system as it is presently constituted pits one district against another. The only real solution to the problem is creation of a consolidated district across the entire metropolitan area. I am not holding my breath waiting for that to happen, considering past history.

Julia DiSalvo, writer and editor:

It may serve as a temporary solution, but city students should not expect to receive a permanent education in county districts. It fails to address the lack of quality education in the city, and it overwhelms county schools, lowering the quality of education for everyone.

Peggy Kornfein, retired teacher:

In the short term, allowing students to attend other schools is a solution. However, with tight budgets and limited space, districts in the county should be allowed to limit the number of students accepted.

The ideal solution is to improve city schools. If the fix were an easy one, it would have been done years ago.

Bill Henske, teacher:

This is fair to the children who are not offered a quality education but it does not fix the problem and aggravates the other systems tasked with taking on additional students. Many of the surrounding districts have been one size for 75 years. There is no growth and no room for new schools in cities like Maplewood, Brentwood, Webster. Adding a large amount of students to these districts will lessen their quality and further aggravate the problems of city schools with bright flight.

The best way to improve quality is to work with winning schools. The are similar districts around the country and in the area with similar demographics, winning students back from private and charter schools with higher quality, developmentally responsive and forward thinking curricula. St. Louis has massive inertia. Break it apart into small, manageable units with more autonomy from the bureaucratic history and problems the greater district has. Without any other change - increase transparency of all aspects of a district and see what happens.

Erik Olsen, parent:

I am split on this issue. I feel that if a school district lost accreditation it needs help to get it back. However, once it had failed so much that the state has taken over, such as is the case with St Louis and Riverview Gardens, it should be acceptable for state funds to be spent to allow students to enroll in a district where they are able to learn.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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