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Government, Politics & Issues

Does transfer law allow loophole or present opportunity?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 14, 2013 - State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal knows firsthand about the ins and outs of transferring from one school district to another.

When she was a student growing up in University City, her family moved to the city of St. Louis, where she attended a private school for a year. Then, she took advantage of the area’s voluntary desegregation plan and transferred to school in Clayton.

Now, the Democratic lawmaker thinks that students living in unaccredited Riverview Gardens and Normandy who want to take advantage of the law that allows them to attend class in a nearby accredited district should have to wait for the same amount of time before they are allowed to transfer.

To be able to just move into an unaccredited district, then turn around right away and transfer elsewhere, amounts to “educational larceny,” says Chappelle-Nadal, who also serves on the U. City school board.

It’s hard to get precise numbers on how many families have engaged in that kind of switch, what state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed calls going in the front door and going out the back door. And it’s difficult to find a family willing to talk about doing so.

But it’s clear that while what they are doing may seem unfair to some, it’s perfectly acceptable according to the transfer law that the Missouri Supreme Court upheld in June.

That law says simply that if a school district is not accredited according to standards set up by the state, it has to pay tuition “for each pupil resident therein who attends an accredited school in another district of the same or an adjoining county.”

The law has no requirements for how long a student who wants to transfer must have lived in the unaccredited district. There isn’t even a requirement that the student had to attend class in the unaccredited district, only that he or she lives there.

The issue prompted one of the more contentious exchanges earlier this month at a hearing in Jefferson City by a joint House-Senate education committee looking into possible changes for the transfer law when lawmakers reconvene in January.

At one point, Nasheed questioned Chris Nicastro, Missouri’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, about what Nasheed called a “loophole” in the transfer process that allowed families to move into an unaccredited district, then turn around and have their children transfer.

“That’s a massive problem I haven’t heard any of you discuss,” Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said. “What they are doing is playing the system.”

Nicastro replied that legal counsel for DESE had looked at the issue, and “no one could find any legal basis for denying any child who is a resident of a sending district the opportunity to participate in the transfer program.” To change that situation, she said, changes would have to be made in the law itself.

Nicastro, who once served as superintendent in Riverview Gardens, went on to say what the current superintendents there and in Normandy have said as well, that a transient population has long been a problem in their districts, one that makes acceptable student achievement levels more difficult to reach.

“Whether or not people are intentionally moving into a district in order to get an education I would suggest is not a new event,” Nicastro said.

“It’s about finding options. Right now people are participating in the transfer program because they don’t see another way to go. If they were to have quality education in a community, people wouldn’t feel they have to move.”

Defending the system

Kate Casas, state director for the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, agrees.

She noted that Normandy Superintendent Ty McNichols told the Jefferson City hearing that his district has a mobility rate of 56 percent, “so how does he (or anyone else) know that these families were not part of this natural pattern of mobility?”

In an email, she said that even if families did move into Normandy or Riverview Gardens solely for the purpose of taking advantage of the student transfer option, “they are well within their right to do so. No one ever blames a middle-class family who can move from St. Louis city to Clayton to access better schools. However, many would have us believe that the families who move into Normandy to access better schools are somehow either morally or legally corrupt.”

Further, she said, access to better schools has always been a reason for families to move.

Citing an argument many have made -- that the transfer program will undermine already weak neighborhoods because families that care about education will send their kids elsewhere -- Casas countered if families are moving into Normandy or Riverview Gardens for educational reasons, they are demonstrating the exact opposite.

“If families are moving to a neighborhood that was otherwise seen as undesirable because of poor performing schools,” she said, “then I would say the student transfer program is doing just the opposite of destroying the fabric of Normandy communities.”

Finally, she said that “the notion that we would force a family who moves into an unaccredited district to send their child to that unaccredited school is really shortsighted public policy. It would not only truly destroy neighborhoods (because no one would ever move there), it would be the worst possible thing you could do to a child. It's like saying ‘wait, this failed school hasn't had a chance to fail you yet, give us some time to not educate you and then you can go someone else.’”

Minimum residency requirements

Nasheed and Chappelle-Nadal worry about the financial drain on Normandy and Riverview Gardens, which will be spending millions of dollars on tuition and transportation for transfer students – money that will not be available to help educate the majority of students in those districts who remain at home.

Normandy has said it could go broke by March because of the additional costs; the state board of education has asked for $6.8 million in supplemental funding to help the district make it through the year.

“It drains the Normandy school district,” Nasheed said of the transfer costs. “A lot of the kids who decide to stay behind lose resources. If students wanted to be in the district, they should move to the district beforehand. If you want your kids to have a quality education in a district you don’t live in, you should be come involved in the district and demand that they get a better education.”

She was particularly dismissive of families whose children live in Normandy and go to private school but now want to take advantage of the transfer law to get an education elsewhere that will be tuition-free.

Nasheed would like to require that students live in an unaccredited district for at least three years before they could transfer elsewhere; she also wants them to have been attending the district’s public schools, though she isn’t sure how long that requirement should be.

Chappelle-Nadal, who presented a framework for changes in the transfer law that she plans to introduce for next year’s legislative session, wants a one-year residency requirement, the same amount of time that she lived in the city before she transferred to Clayton under the deseg program.

“I think it’s educational larceny for people to move into a community from another community just so they can attend another school,” she said. “They take the money. They have never paid taxes in that community or to that district, and they take or $11,000 or $12,000 from that district.”

New guidelines

DESE released on Friday revisions to the non-binding guidelines it published in the summer after the Supreme Court upheld the transfer law. The guidelines are only advisory and do not have the force of law.

The new guidelines say school districts should publicly post their policies on class size by Jan. 15 before the school year in which such policies will be applicable.

It also said that districts “may consider documented growth in the student population, other than transfers from unaccredited districts, in determining district capacity to accept transfer students.”

Further, the department said that “generally, it is in the best interest of students to transfer at the beginning of the school year. If there are extenuating circumstances that make it appropriate for serving the interest of the child, receiving districts should consider transfers at the semester based on locally determined class size.”

And the new version of the guidelines said that students who are already enrolled as non-resident transfers will not have to reapply, though their parents may have to complete a form saying their child intends to stay in the receiving district for another year.

Also on Friday, Cooperating School Districts, which handled logistics for this year’s round of school transfers, issued a statement after a meeting of area superintendents, saying that it planned to continue acting as the administrative clearing house for transfers in the future.

It plans to name a steering committee to determine procedures and timelines for student transfers for the 2014-15 school year and develop an automated process for managing paperwork and placement of students.

The statement added: “There is unanimous agreement among our members that it is in the best interest of students to transfer at the beginning of a school year. As provided for in the DESE guidelines, if there are extenuating circumstances that make it appropriate for serving the interest of the child, sending and receiving districts will consider transfers at the semester.”

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