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Commentary: Concerns about inter-district transfers are overblown

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon Will the Missouri Supreme Court’s ruling in Gina Breitenfeld v. School District of Clayton, et al. be the end of suburban peace and tranquility? That is what some are afraid might happen now that students from failing school districts may be permitted to enroll in higher-performing accredited schools.

At the heart of the issue are some serious concerns. Will the accredited schools have enough space to accommodate transferring students? Will there be enough money to cover the costs. The answer to both of these questions is a resounding “yes.”

For the most part, fears about space and school funding are overblown. For starters, the number of students attending accredited schools in St. Louis County has decreased by nearly 8,000 since 2002. There are little more than 10,100 students in the two St. Louis area’s unaccredited school districts, Normandy and Riverview Gardens. That means the accredited districts could enroll almost every student from the failing districts and the level of students would be the same as a decade ago.

Despite the decline in the number of students, the number of school buildings in the accredited districts has increased from 221 to 227 over the same 10-year period. With declining enrollment and an increasing number of school buildings, area schools should have plenty of space to accommodate transferring students.

Concerns about funding carry a little more weight, but not much. Yes, the Clayton School District spends more than $18,000 per pupil, but Clayton is not the norm. The average accredited school district in the county spends approximately $800 more per pupil than the unaccredited school districts: $11,700 compared to $10,900. This is not an insurmountable difference.

The difference in spending between these districts is not for a lack of taxation. The average school tax liability for the unaccredited districts is $5.81 per $100 of assessed valuation. The average for accredited districts is just $4.71. Normandy and Riverview Gardens simply have less property wealth from which they can generate revenue for schools; these are areas with high concentrations of poverty.

There are certainly other issues that may bring about some cause for concern, including property rights. These issues may be grounds for the legislature to step in and set some guidelines for transfers. Nevertheless, accredited schools in St. Louis County are positioned very well for an influx of students from Normandy and Riverview Gardens. Of course, there will be growing pains; every school district that has seen rapid changes in enrollment has experienced such. With those growing pains come some great opportunities to improve the lives of students and our community.

Giving students from failing schools access to higher-performing schools will not be the end of suburbia. It will, however, give students options and hope for a brighter future. That is what public education is all about.

James V. Shuls is the education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.

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