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Commentary: The Real Cost Of The School Transfer Program

(Courtesy of D.J. Wilson)
Commentator D.J. Wilson

Cost is factor no matter what you are buying – a six-pack of beer, a pair of jeans, a house, or for a state government, a public education for school-age children.

Much has been said about the cost of the region’s current inter-district student transfer program. Much of what has been said about that cost has been incomplete, or ill informed. 

The one price tag that’s been floated is $35 million. Let’s break that down. 

There are 2,600 students who live in the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts and have chosen to go to school in accredited school districts. Were it not for two Missouri Supreme Court rulings allowing those students to transfer to another district, they would have gone to school in Normandy or Riverview Gardens. 

These students were not born yesterday. Had they returned to their home districts this school year, the cost of educating them would have been about $27 million – that’s $12,000 per student in Normandy, $9,500 per student in Riverview Gardens. Even if we accept the $35 million estimate, that represents an $8 million margin above what it would have cost if these kids had stayed in their original schools.  

Based on those numbers, the real regional cost of the transfer program is $8 million, not $35 million. 

Of course, that money did exit those unaccredited districts with the students. So those districts will lose money and eventually reduction in force guidelines will lead to cuts in staff and expenses. Making those cuts will not be easy or painless, but it’s needed if money is going to be spent where it should be – on giving students a better chance for a better life. 

And let’s look at where the money comes from to finance these two unaccredited districts. More than 60 percent of each district’s budget is state and federal money, not local district dollars.  That money, as it should, will follow the student who is on a bus ride to an accredited school.

That bus ride, on average, will cost about $3,000 per student, per year, and is included in cost estimates. Sure, that’s real money, but it’s money well spent.

Providing a tuition-free education to every child in Missouri is a state responsibility. It’s in the state constitution. The public education is administered by the local school district, but it’s a state responsibility. 

When those school districts are troubled – as many are, not just Normandy and Riverview Gardens – it’s the state’s job to step in and see that its money is being well spent, and that those students have a chance to walk into a decent school every morning. 

All kids need that chance. 

Now students in Normandy and Riverview Gardens – 2,600 of them – have a chance for a view of a larger world with more opportunities.  

Is there a cost to this program? Sure. But don’t believe the negative hype about the cost. Whatever cost guess-timate you hear, subtract the $27 million it would have cost to put these students in their original schools. Remember that 60 percent of that money comes from the state and federal government. 

Transferring students does not solve the whole problem, yet it might solve the problem for those students who transfer. Reorganizing troubled districts, rethinking district boundaries, reforming struggling schools can all happen to help students who decide to stay. 

If this transfer program makes the educational establishment, the legislature, and the public look at education as everyone’s challenge, and failing schools as everyone’s problem, it is a good start.