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State of the state: Failing districts may have ripple effect in Missouri schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 30, 2010 - Lawmakers going to Jefferson City next year will face two big issues in education: Where should students attend class and how will their schools be funded?

The second issue isn't new, of course. As Missouri's financial woes have deepened, state officials say they have tried to spare education as much as possible. But the school foundation formula remains underfunded, and education officials have been warned that they are about to face another tough economics lesson as budget numbers are put together for coming years.

To crunch the numbers more specifically, Ronald Lankford, deputy commissioner of elementary and secondary education for financial and administrative services, said that the law called for the foundation formula that supports Missouri schools to be fully funded by the 2012 fiscal year. But instead of adding dollars, the state has had to subtract.

This past year, he said, 1.5 percent, or $47 million, was withheld from the formula, which would have been $3.147 billion if it had been fully funded. Another $100 million was scheduled to be added next year, and another $110 million the year after that.

In addition, Lankford said, education funding has been cut in other areas besides the foundation formula, including $70 million in transportation, $17 million for Parents as Teachers and $37 million for a career ladder program for teachers.

Despite the reductions, he said, Missouri has been able to hold off longer than most other state in cutting school funding. And given the fiscal realities of the state budget, there weren't a whole lot of other places where the cuts could come from.

So were the cuts fair?

"I'm not trying to say, "Gee, I like it, it's a great thing,' " Lankford said. "I hate to see school funding being cut and the eventual price that will be paid in the quality of education we can offer our students. But at the same time, given the amount of resources that are available, I don't know that the state has any option. They have to go where the money is to withhold."

The foundation formula was the subject of one of two major education rulings from the Missouri Supreme Court in the past year. In a ruling last September, it rejected arguments from an unusual coalition of rural, urban and suburban districts that claimed the state was not funding public schools fairly or adequately.

But though the court said the state is meeting its minimal constitutional obligation in paying for schools, questions were raised about the equity of using property taxes as the main means of raising funds for education. That condition, Judge Michael Wolff said in a dissent, has led to a disparity in per-pupil spending that is "stunning."

Another stunner for the state's school districts -- and one that could sharply change how they do business -- came from the court in July, with its ruling in the so-called Turner case.

Parents of students in St. Louis wanted to take advantage of a state law that allowed them to send their children to a school district in an adjacent county because the city schools are unaccredited -- and have the city school system pay the tuition.

Further, the law states that "each pupil shall be free to attend the public school of his or her choice."

Both requirements prompted resistance -- from the city schools, which have said they do not have the money to pay tuition for students who may want to attend suburban districts, and from the receiving districts, which say they shouldn't have to accept students without being able to say how many they have space for.

The Supreme Court -- saying that the law includes "unambiguous mandatory language" -- sent the case back to St. Louis County Circuit Court for resolution. But legislatively, educators expect the issue to be a focus of next year's session of the General Assembly, with districts looking for some clarity and some discretion in which students they have to enroll.

"If there's no controls put on these transfers," says Joe Knodell of the Missouri Education Reform Council, "it could result in chaos."

The Lawsuit

The original lawsuit involves four children -- Jane Turner, Susan Bruker, Gina Breitenfeld and William Drendel -- who lived in the city but attended Clayton schools under personal tuition agreements. When city schools lost their accreditation in 2007 and became a transitional district run by a Special Administrative Board, they asked that the city pay the tuition to attend Clayton, as included in the law.

When the board refused, the parents filed suit against the city schools, the administrative board and the Clayton School District, seeking not only tuition for the 2007-08 school year but restitution for tuition that had already been paid.

In response, the transitional city district responded it was not governed by the law in question but by a separate law passed in 1998 that was part of the settlement of the area's long-running school desegregation case. Separately, Clayton cited a law that said it had discretion over which out-of-district students it had to accept.

In its ruling in July, the Supreme Court found in favor of the students. Its decision stated flatly that the law cited by their suit clearly "applies to the transitional school district, that it requires the Clayton district to admit the students and that it mandates the transitional school district to pay the students' tuition."

Sending the case back to St. Louis County Circuit Court, where the parents had lost originally, the Supreme Court said its ruling could take effect for the coming school year, which began in about a month. That imminent application later was delayed, giving districts some breathing room, but schools statewide have still worried about the impact of the ruling.

Refuting the claim by districts that the provision of the law did not appeal to them because the Legislature had exempted them in the past, the court said: "This court enforces statutes as they are written, not as they might have been written," and lawmakers had not exempted the transitional city district from its earlier rules governing transfers.

Denying Clayton's claim about a district's discretion to decide which non-resident students it may accept, the court said that lawmakers had specifically removed previous language that stated that "no school shall be required to admit any pupil."

Reaction to the ruling was quick and strong, on both sides.

Chris Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, told school administrators a few weeks after the decision came down that the Legislature needs to "find some way for a receiving school to determine and balance capacity of taking on new students without jeopardizing instructional programs within a district."

In its further appeal, Clayton said the high court's ruling would add a "new and draconian requirement" surrounding out-of-district students, overturning precedent. It also raised the specter that white students in the city might use the ruling to apply en masse to St. Louis County schools, violating federal court guidelines concerning desegregation.

And a brief filed by the Missouri attorney general's office included a flyer distributed in the Riverview Gardens School District, the only one in the state besides St. Louis that is currently unaccredited and being run by a state-appointed board.

It said:



Your children have the "RIGHT" to transfer NOW before school starts




Since the ruling came out, districts, parents and the state have been trying to figure out what the next steps are. Of the students from the original lawsuit who are still enrolled in Clayton, two are paying tuition and others have filed affidavits saying they now are residents, district spokesman Chris Tennill said.

Altogether, he said, the district has 72 tuition students, paying $9,680 for grades kindergarten through five and $14,800 for grades six through 12. Others have been turned away, mostly at the elementary school level, for space reasons.

"We look at class size on a school-by-school basis," he said. "We work very hard not to take any tuition students that are going to cause our class sizes to get beyond the expectations of our community.

"The great thing about public school districts in Missouri is there is state guidance but a significant amount of local control."

He said Clayton has received about four dozen inquiries from students interested in having tuition-paid transfers; he said in north St. Louis County, districts have had many more.

Tennill and others expect the Legislature to deal with the aftermath of the court case by concentrating on seven words that had been in earlier laws but dropped out: "districts have the discretion to enroll students."

"We will be one of many asking for help and resolution on this," Tennill said. "This is not a Clayton issue anymore. This affects every school district in St. Louis, St. Charles, Franklin and Jefferson counties."

John Urkevich, who heads the Cooperating School Districts organization, said that the case "has so many moving parts," but the main underlying issue is who gets to have the say over how schools are run.

"There has to be some measure of local control regarding the acceptance of students from unaccredited districts," he said. "You have to be able to say no at a certain point because your class sizes are too large or you have to build additional facilities. If you have to build additional facilities, who pays for that? The district's taxpayers?"

He also noted the expense involved for Missouri from districts like St. Louis, where thousands of students already attend charter schools, private or parochial schools or St. Louis County schools under the deseg program. If a large group of them enter the public school system for the first time, it will put a financial strain on a state that is already having a hard tie funding education adequately.

"That would cause a ripple in the foundation formula throughout the state," Urkevich said. "Who's going to pay for them? Where is that money going to come from?"

Other Ideas

One of the ideas that has been floated in recent legislative sessions that seems sure to come back is one of open enrollment: Let all students, not just ones in unaccredited districts, choose where they want to go to school. Supporters say competition will make schools better, and because state money follows students, those who lose children to other districts will have to improve or see their support drop drastically.

Earl Simms, of the Children's Education Council of Missouri, says it's all about giving children options, within reason.

"We don't expect that every single kid in St. Louis or Riverview Gardens would all show up on Clayton's doorstep and Clayton would have to take them," he said. "This is a statewide issue."

He noted that when the state recently released preliminary figures showing how well school districts would fare if they were judged for accreditation now, a growing number seemed to be sliding toward the same unaccredited category that St. Louis and Riverview Gardens are in now.

"For a long time, people thought this was a St. Louis-Kansas City-urban core issue," Simms added. "This is something that the Legislature is going to have to address this session."

Besides open enrollment, Simms said, two other remedies that lawmakers should consider is increasing the number of charter schools by allowing them statewide instead of just in St. Louis and Kansas City and revisiting a scholarship tax credit program that would provide private dollars for students to go to the schools they want to attend.

Such alternatives would give all students and their parents more chances to secure a good education, he said.

"Even though St. Louis is a much larger district," he said, "Riverview Gardens has fewer options. St. Louis at least has charters and some privately funded options. Riverview Gardens parents have the district, and that's it, if they can't afford to send their children to private school."

So while the Turner suit grinds slowly through the courts -- Circuit Judge David Lee Vincent has asked for new filings in the case by Monday -- Jefferson City is where most interested parties are looking for whatever resolution is likely to occur.

"We don't want the courts coming back in and getting involved again," said Knodell.

Adds Urkevich: "Judge Vincent may be doing the same thing, waiting for the Legislature to set some parameters. An awful lot has been put on him."

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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