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Law could cause chaos in St. Louis area schools

(via Flickr/evmaiden)

For nearly 20 years Missouri has had a law on the books that allows students in unaccredited school districts to transfer to nearby accredited ones.

It’s a policy that makes sense on the surface.

Yet as of this year both the St. Louis and Kansas City public schools are without state accreditation.

As St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman reports, the law would allow thousands of students to transfer into suburban districts at a huge cost to the urban schools.

  • Read the survey commissioned by the Clayton School District that estimated how many students would leave St. Louis Public Schools and transfer to St. Louis County school districts.

An everyday concern

Nearly every parent worries about whether their child is getting a good education.

But it’s an everyday concern for Latishia Whitfield.

Her daughters, 10-year old Kentrice and 13-year old Kennisha are in the St. Louis Public Schools, a district that lost state accreditation in 2007.

“I’m always on them about their homework, do what they're told at school, while you’re in class pay attention to the teacher,” Whitfield said. “But in a classroom with kids doing this and doing that and the teacher’s not focusing on the kids that are disrupting the class, then how are they going to learn?”

At Lyon @ Blow Elementary, the school where Whitfield’s girls attend, only about 20 percent of the kids met state standards in math and communication arts last year.

After school in her south city home, Whitfield says she’d transfer her daughters to a county district if she could.

“Instantly; in a heartbeat,” she said.

The right to transfer

Missouri law gives families in unaccredited districts that right.

But it wasn’t until last year, when the state Supreme Court heard the case “Turner vs. the School District of Clayton” that it became a real possibility.

The high court upheld the 1993 law, which says students in unaccredited districts can move to any accredited district in an adjoining county.

The kicker is that the unaccredited district must pay tuition and provide transportation.

“It would be almost impossible to educate the students who remain, who don’t take advantage of Turner,” said St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams.

An estimated 8,300 students would leave SLPS under the law, according to a survey done last year. That’s a third of the district.

What’s more, Adams says SLPS would be on the hook for students who live within its borders but have never attended its schools.

“So as it stands now a kid in a Catholic school could leave and go to Clayton, Rockwood, one of the schools that are a part of this, and we’d have to find the dollars to pay for it while we’ve never seen that student in our entire lives,” Adams said.

Practical considerations in St. Louis County

School administrators in St. Louis County also are worried, especially because the law does not let them limit how many students could transfer to their schools.

The survey cited above asked St. Louis parents what county districts would be their first choice.

Clayton was the top choice, followed by Kirkwood, Lindbergh, and the Rockwood School District.

Rockwood Superintendent Bruce Borchers feels some pride that an estimated 1,700 students would choose to travel all the way out to Eureka, but he says there are practical considerations.

“We’d have some room to take students but if you start talking about 1,700 or more, that’s the thing I think most districts are worried about, we’d have to build more facilities or our class size would have to go up,” Borchers said.

No one is quite sure how this will play out.

While the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the law, the Turner case is heading back to St. Louis County on March 5 where a lower court was been ordered to iron out details.

"Turner Fixes"

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Jefferson City are working on a variety of what they call “Turner Fixes."

Don Senti, who heads up the Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis, says he’s beginning to doubt either the courts or the capitol will provide relief.

“I think the judge is probably hoping it’ll come from the legislature, but even though there have been all sorts of requests for the legislature to fix it, it’s really not going very well,” he said.

Senti says bills meant to clarify the law are getting bogged down with controversial plans, such as school vouchers and ending teacher tenure.

Yet he says if the law is not changed it will mean chaos for St. Louis County schools and bankruptcy for the city’s school district.

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.