This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 1, 2011 - If the law allowing students in St. Louis to transfer to suburban school districts is allowed to stand, more than 15,000 students are likely to take advantage of the opportunity, with 3,100 of those requiring special education services, a new study estimates.
The survey was commissioned by the Clayton School District to underscore its position in an ongoing legal skirmish over how a Missouri Supreme Court ruling in what is known as the Turner case should be implemented.
Last year, the Supreme Court upheld a law that says students who live in an unaccredited Missouri school district -- currently just St. Louis and Riverview Gardens, with Kansas City set to join them next month --may transfer to accredited districts in adjacent areas. The receiving districts would have to take any student who applies, the law says, and the home district would have to pay the non-resident tuition.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to St. Louis County Circuit Court to work out details of how the transfers should be handled. The case was supposed to go to trial in September, then in January, but it has been postponed again, to March 5, by agreement of all parties involved.
Chris Tennill, spokesman for the Clayton schools, said the survey was commissioned as part of the evidence the district plans to present when the case finally goes to trial, "to try to prove, among other things, the impossibility to comply with this decision."
He noted that Clayton currently has 2,500 students, but the survey showed that 3,500 city students would be likely to choose the district to transfer to if the court ruling were to go into effect and districts would have no discretion over how many transfer students they could accept.
"Part of the Supreme Court decision was to remand this back for resolution of all of the issues," Tennill added, "so we're just following that path. I think the numbers in this survey underscore the importance of why we have to get back into trial court and figure out how we can do this in a reasonable way."
Part of that reasonable approach, he added, would be to give school districts discretion over how many students from elsewhere they would accept. He noted that when such discretion existed, Clayton accepted 30 or 40 students from Wellston when it lost accreditation. Wellston since has been absorbed by the Normandy schools.
"Our record speaks for itself," Tennill said. "The whole idea is to try to get the reasonable parameters back that existed prior to the court decision."
The survey on potential transfer students was conducted by political science professor Terry Jones at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He contacted 601 households in the city of St. Louis in October and November, using both cell phones and landlines, focusing on four basic questions:
- How many school-age children live in the city?
- How close are their homes to school buildings in the Clayton School District?
- What factors are most important in choosing a school district?
- What proportion of city students would transfer to a county district if they could do so without paying tuition?
Using census data from 2005 to 2009, Jones found 56,619 school-age children living in the city, kindergarten through 12th grade. Of those, almost two-thirds live less than 20 minutes by car, one way, from Clayton's high school, middle school or three elementary schools. About 25,000 attend St. Louis Public Schools.
Clayton was the closest high-achievement district, as measured by scores on Missouri's MAP tests. But MAP scores came in third in a list of seven factors judged extremely important by the households responding when it comes to how they would go about choosing a school district in St. Louis County.
First was a district's graduation rate, followed by the percentage of a district's graduates that go on to a two-year or four-year college or university. Next came MAP scores, then diversity of the student body, the amount of dollars spent on each student's education, how close the district's schools are to a student's home and how close they are to public transit.
Then the respondents were asked their preference among six high-performing county districts, listed in random order: Brentwood, Clayton, Kirkwood, Ladue, Lindbergh and Rockwood. Clayton was the first choice of 22.7 percent, followed by Kirkwood at 12.1 percent, then Lindbergh, Rockwood, Ladue and Brentwood.
The final question was how likely a child would be to transfer to a county district of his or her choice next fall, with no charge for tuition. The question was then modified by two factors:
- What if parents were responsible for transportation?
- What if the choice was no longer available once the St. Louis Public Schools regained state accreditation?
After subtracting respondents who answered they were somewhat less likely or a lot less likely to choose to transfer under either of those two conditions, the number of estimated transfer students was 15,740, or 27.8 percent of the students living in the city. Among students with individualized education programs, requiring special education services, the transfer rate is 32.8 percent, or 3,157 students.
Nancy Ide, spokeswoman for the Special School District, which has entered the case on the side of Clayton, said she wasn't sure it could provide education for so many students with special needs, particularly when so many questions remain unanswered.
"Who would be responsible for funding?" she said. "We would hope that the court would address that before it would go on with the plan. Thirty-one hundred kids is a large number of students, and the concern is that right now, there is no way to be reimbursed for those services."
As far as whether the district could even provide the personnel to handle such a large influx of students, Ide said:
"There is such a variety in the needs and services required by each student, it would depend a lot on which school district a student might choose to attend. Staffing would be an issue. I don't think we could even speculate until there was a firm number somewhere."
Since the Supreme Court ruling in the Turner case, educators, lawmakers and others have expressed a desire to make changes so districts would have more say over how many transfer students they would have to accept from unaccredited districts.
Several bills were introduced in the Missouri legislature earlier this year to address the situation, but nothing was passed. A compromise put together by Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield; Don Senti, former superintendent in Clayton; and John Cary, superintendent in the Special School District, was floated late in the legislative session but did not win enough support for passage.
Since the lawmakers adjourned, a joint legislative committee on school accreditation has conducted hearings on the issue, including one last month in St. Louis, with the expectation that more bills will be introduced on the topic next year.