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Student transfer law prompts discussion, finger pointing

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 15, 2013: If parents who are caught up in the current swirl of controversy over student transfers are looking for someone to blame, Kathleen Brown Sullivan at the University of Missouri-St. Louis says there are plenty of places where fingers should be pointed.

Sullivan, an associate professor at UMSL’s school of education, notes that the Missouri law allowing students who live in unaccredited school districts to transfer to nearby accredited ones dates from 1993, and the court case that prompted the current rush to prepare for transfers began in 2007.

So, she asks, “Why is everybody so surprised? This train has been coming down the track for years.

“I am really concerned about the lack of leadership on this whole thing, mainly on the part of the legislature. They have refused to deal with it. They didn’t want to touch and wanted to let the court deal with it.”

When the Missouri Supreme Court did deal with it, in its ruling last month that upheld the law and overturned a lower court ruling, the two unaccredited districts in north St. Louis County – Normandy and Riverview Gardens – began preparing for a possible exodus of students.

The law says they have to pay tuition for any student who wants to transfer, and they may also designate one district to which they are willing to pay transportation costs as well. Both could take a big chunk of budgets in districts that are already hard-pressed.

For transportation, Normandy chose Francis Howell in St. Charles County; Riverview Gardens chose Mehlville in deep south St. Louis County. And the blame game was on.

At a public forum at Francis Howell Central High School Thursday night, a crowd that packed the gymnasium faulted Superintendent Pam Sloan, the district’s school board, the unaccredited districts themselves and a small group of lawmakers who sat in the front row.

They were criticized for not acting to change the law to give receiving districts some discretion over how many transfer students they must take. State Rep. Mark Parkinson, R-St. Charles County, in turn criticized the court for waiting until the legislative session was over to release its ruling and Gov. Jay Nixon for refusing to call a special session to fix the problem.

But Brown and others say that kind of debate is really beside the point.

“For them to say, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m so shocked that this has come about and now we have to do something about it in such a short time,’ that’s disingenuous,” she told the Beacon. “They knew this was coming. They could have dealt with this in a more educational way. They made a political decision. They didn’t make an educational decision.”

Kate Casas, state director for the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, has been a strong supporter of the law as written. But, she acknowledges, some changes might make sense, given how the transfer debate has played out in the past month.

“I would prefer some kind of a law that would allow some controls by the receiving districts on how many kids they have to accept,” she said. “But those kids who want to transfer should have the option of a virtual school or a private school or a charter school or any other option you could dream up.”

Her change of heart, Casas said, is based in part on the unaccredited districts’ choice of a transportation target, and the apparent reason behind it.

“The people to blame for what is happening are the Normandy and Riverview Gardens boards and superintendents. What is happening right now, limiting transportation to one district 20 miles away, is not school choice. That is a deliberate attempt maybe to adhere to the letter of the law but certainly not the spirit of the law.

“There is no doubt in my mind that they chose Francis Howell and Mehlville because they are far away and they are unknown entities to the people who live in Riverview Gardens and Normandy, and they anticipated meetings like what happened last night. They were trying to deter people from transferring. I have not talked to a single person in Riverview who knew where Mehlville was before they made that decision. That is not school choice. No one would choose a school they could not even locate on a map.”

Brown put it this way: "Francis Howell is a good district, but would I want my child on a bus 22 miles away to a different county, when Hazelwood and Clayton and Parkway and other districts are nearby? Superintendents are waiting until they are forced to make some sort of move. Parents are saying, tell me what I'm supposed to do here.

"The issue couldn't get the attention of the state legislature for forever, or they wanted to tie it to some sort of school voucher program, and if they didn't get that, they didn't care. They were saying, this is a St. Louis problem, or this is a Kansas City problem. But suddenly, with the choice of Francis Howell, it's a St. Charles problem, too."

More public input needed

Brown says that people involved in such decisions say they are driven by data, but she isn’t sure what that means.

“I don’t know what data they are looking at,” she said. “I think this needs to be a much more public decision. The data need to be more transparent. We’re past the stage where we can make these decisions without involving parents and students. I don’t think these decisions were made with the best interests of students at heart. They were made trying to minimize the amount of money that is going out of the district.”

She sympathizes with the Ty McNichols at Normandy and Scott Spurgeon at Riverview Gardens, each of whom just started their jobs as superintendent on July 1, in the midst of the transfer discussions.

“The first issue they have to face is losing students from their district and paying for those students to go elsewhere,” Brown said.

But, she added, the whole situation shows how public education in St. Louis County and elsewhere could use a total overhaul.

“If districts are not doing what they are supposed to be doing, year after year after year, even after a special board has been appointed, and nothing has turned around, should those districts continue to exist?” she asked. “Should they be bankrupted by being forced to pay for students to go somewhere else?

“That’s a harsh thing to say, but maybe they should go out of business. Why do we have 22 districts in St. Louis County, some of them very small? It’s because they have always done business that way. We need somebody, some education leaders, to step up and say, ‘OK, we have a problem. Let’s look at it and figure out the best way to address it.”

In the end, though, she's not sure how much disruption the districts involved will have to put up with.

"I just don't think it's going to be the total chaos that many people fear," Brown said. "But you do have to plan. The state spends lots of time and effort collecting core data. We should know exactly what the capacity is in all these school districts and school buildings. We're supposed to be data-driven, but we're stumbling around like we don't know what's going on."

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has issued guidelines designed to help districts work through the issues that the law has brought. But it admits that they are simply suggestions and don’t have the force of law. For example, it says districts should develop admissions policies and specify on their websites how many slots they have available, even though neither the law nor the court ruling says that districts may turn away transfer students.

Casas understands why they proceeded in that way, saying they were caught in the same legislative inaction that the districts were.

“I think they found themselves between a rock and hard place,” she said. “If we’re going to point fingers, I would point them at administrators and school boards and teachers unions that walked away from the table when we were trying to fix this in 2011 and 2012. They were certain they were going to win in the Supreme Court, so they weren’t interested in a deal.”

Where the dispute began

The fact that a change is even needed, so that accredited districts can have the option of limiting the number of transfer students they accept, has a history reaching back more than 20 years.

The current law was passed in 1993 as part of an omnibus education act. Otto Fajen, who is now legislative director for the National Education Association in Missouri, worked then in the state Senate research office, helping to draft the legislation.

He told the Beacon that before 1993, a transfer law that dealt primarily with high school students provided the option for receiving districts to say how many students they were willing to take. But as the broader-based bill worked its way through the legislature, that provision fell away.

Fajen isn’t quite sure why that happened, or who was pushing for the change. But he does know it wasn’t designed to bring about the controversy raging today.

“We did not anticipate what the court later read into it,” he said. “That wasn’t a part of our thought process, that that change would be interpreted that way. The idea that there would somehow be no discretion for receiving districts, in terms of capacity, I can’t imagine that that was really a part of what anybody was thinking.”

As the law lay dormant while the transfer case moved through the court system, lawmakers had the chance to make changes. But, Fajen said, the legislative mindset had changed from what it was in the 1990s, and what might appear to be simple solutions get caught up in elaborate give and take.

“The way the legislature works now,” he said, “if there is a problem, people on different sides look at it. People on one side say we need a fix, and the people on the other side say, it’s going to cost you. There is a different legislative style now. They say, if you want that change, we’re going to pass something like tenure or vouchers or something like that.”

An education bill that did win passage in the legislature this year, and was signed by Nixon on Friday, provides another possible option for students in unaccredited school districts to receive a better education.

The law’s main provisions give the state a quicker route to taking over unaccredited school districts, as well as giving the St. Louis schools the same ability that other districts in the state have, to dismiss teachers on the basis of incompetence.

But a little-noticed provision also would allow the board of a district taken over by the state to contract with an accredited district or any other education entity to provide services.

In other words, instead of sending students from an unaccredited or lapsed district to another district, the accredited district could send personnel and other services to the unaccredited district. That solution was mentioned by some commenters at the Francis Howell meeting Thursday night and also has been suggested by others, including Art McCoy, superintendent in Ferguson-Florissant.

The new law takes effect Aug. 28, too late for the start of the coming school year, and because Normandy has not been taken over by the state, it would not be authorized to take advantage of the new provision.

Plus, Cindy Ormbsy, attorney for Francis Howell, pointed out to the Beacon that the law merely provides another option to help students in unaccredited districts. It does not negate the transfer opportunity in the current law.

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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