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Commentary: Free high-performing public schools for every Zip code?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 28, 2010 - The Missouri Supreme Court recently ruled that students in unaccredited school districts have the right to transfer to, and must be accepted by, an accredited school at the cost of the unaccredited district. The law upheld by the court also allows the transfer to be to a school "in another district of the same or an adjoining county." This ruling should serve as a wake-up call that serious statewide education reforms must be passed in the 2011 legislative session.

Failure to do so will result in a mass of children from the unaccredited St. Louis Public School district transferring to accredited schools in St. Louis County districts virtually overnight. The ruling also appears to allow students from the unaccredited Riverview Gardens School District to transfer to schools in neighboring St. Charles, Jefferson and Franklin counties.

Missouri has nine provisionally accredited districts, two of which, Kansas City and Normandy, are close to being unaccredited One district, Hickman Mills in Kansas City, is on track to go from accredited to unaccredited by 2011 With an additional eight districts on track to losing full accreditation by 2011, this ruling could have a drastic, statewide impact on the future of problem schools and districts and their neighboring schools and districts. Three significant reforms could alleviate the burden that these districts will no doubt feel as a result of this court ruling.

First, the legislature must remove the geographic caps on opening public charter schools beyond the St. Louis and Kansas City School districts. Allowing for quality, accountable charter schools to open in all areas of the state will give parents of children who are stuck in failing school districts many more options than just transferring to another zoned school site. Expanding charters across the state will provide an incentive to many of the high performing charter school operators to open schools in Missouri. Just as critical, the legislature should pass laws to increase accountability on charter school operators and sponsors.

Second, the legislature should expand the private sector's use of tuition-assistance programs for disadvantaged families in Missouri. The St. Louis region has an effective and efficient way of providing immediate scholarships to families located within the city - through programs such as the Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation.

In the past three years alone, more than 1,700 children have found alternatives to government assigned schools - without state assistance. With enabling legislation allowing private charitable contributions to a state program available to other families in financial need, Missouri could join other states like Florida and Iowa that have successful private contribution-based, tuition assistance programs.

Finally, open enrollment legislation across school districts should become legal. Open enrollment would allow for the orderly transfer of public school students wishing to find another public school option nearby. Both Iowa and Arkansas have flexible working policies that Missouri lacks. These laws and rules provide for early, reasonable transfers to other public schools of choice without litigation.

While this case was remanded back to a lower court for further review, the court was clear that Missouri law was written in "straightforward and unambiguous language" allowing students in unaccredited districts to transfer to a school in the same, or an adjoining, county at the cost of the unaccredited district. To not undertake significant education reforms in the 2011 legislative session that allow for expanded parental choice in educating their children could result in a free-for-all of transfers to schools in neighboring counties. With 18 districts scattered across the state provisionally accredited, or close to losing full accreditation, how long will it be before such a costly free-for-all spreads statewide?

Since 1875, the Missouri State Constitution has said the General Assembly "shall establish and maintain free public schools for the gratuitous instruction of all persons in this state." (Article IX, Section 1(a)). The children of every zip code, not just those residing within 63105 (Clayton) or 63124 (Ladue), deserve the best our state can offer.

Earl Simms is state director of the Children's Education Council of Missouri , a not-for-profit organization that "supports individualized learning opportunities for all children through issue resolution, community education and civic engagement." 

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