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Compromise to solve school transfer suit couldn't make the grade

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 9, 2011 - About three weeks before Missouri lawmakers ended their session last month, a state senator and two St. Louis area school superintendents worked out what they thought could be the answer to a thorny education problem: the Turner case.

Under a Missouri Supreme Court ruling issued in that lawsuit, students in unaccredited public school districts -- currently, St. Louis and Riverview Gardens -- may enroll in any district in a neighboring county, with their resident district picking up the tab. The receiving district would have no choice in whether to accept the transferring students.

Implementation of the ruling has been held up as the legal wrangling continues. St. Louis County Circuit Judge David Lee Vincent scheduled a meeting with lawyers for the various sides for May 31, in the apparent hope that legislative action might make the case go away. But lawmakers who debated a lot of educational issues during the session ended up passing very few bills, so the conference went forward.

Now, the next Turner trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 26, preceded by another meeting with the lawyers on July 22.

But if state Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, and Superintendents Don Senti of Parkway and John Cary of the Special School District had had their way, the case would be settled by now. On a conference call, they came up with a three-point plan they thought would resolve the issues -- providing good education choices for students in St. Louis and Riverview Gardens without putting an undue burden on districts on the receiving end.

They soon found out they were wrong.

"It was not going to go anywhere with anybody," Cary recalled in an interview Tuesday. "That was obvious. It was dead on arrival as far as the state educational organizations were concerned."

Three-part Proposal

As worked out by Cunningham, Senti and Cary, the proposal would have had three parts.

First, students in the unaccredited districts would have been provided with scholarships, up to the amount that was spent per child per year in their home district, to be used at a non-public, non-sectarian school in the city. Cunningham cited City Academy as one example and said she was sure others would begin operation if the plan were instituted.

Second, to provide even more choice for the students involved, St. Louis County districts would be allowed to sponsor charter schools in the city, either individually or under the umbrella of the Cooperating School Districts organization, which represents districts throughout the area.

Finally, suburban schools that were asked to accept students from the unaccredited districts would be allowed to have a say in how many they would accept, according to their current enrollment and the class sizes they wanted to maintain. Cunningham said the limits could be monitored by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

She said that the formula reached during that conference call would have resolved the issue in a fair way and would abide by the spirit of the Supreme Court's ruling, which she agreed with in terms of its interpretation of existing law.

"I wanted to have my cake and eat it too," Cunningham said. "This compromise would have achieved that. It wouldn't eliminate the rights of any children under the statute as it is now, but it would also recognize the desire of the county districts to limit the number of students they could accept."

A former school board member in Ladue who has been active in education issues in the legislature, Cunningham said the plan would have allowed students to remain in schools near their homes, which she said would cut down on travel time that could better be used for instruction.

She also said that the amount of money spent by the city schools -- more than $16,000 a student, according to state figures for the 2009-2010 school year -- would be attractive to schools that could enroll city students and have the dollars follow.

Cunningham noted she often uses a chart that she says shows the state isn't getting what it is paying for now, in terms of increased dollars a student. While spending goes up at about a 45-degree angle over recent years, she said, student test scores remain flat. (See chart at the end of the article)

"We have gotten pretty much no return on our investment," Cunningham said. "We can't accept the status quo any more. We have got to do something different, or we will keep getting a lack of achievement for increased spending."

Resistance from Establishment

But the status quo is just what Cunningham, Senti and Cary ran into when they began to circulate their compromise plan as the end of the legislative session approached.

Senti, who is set to leave his second stint as superintendent of Parkway at the end of June to take over as head of the Cooperating School Districts, said it was clear when they were on the call with Cunningham that he and Cary were speaking as individuals, and they were far from certain they would be able to win their colleagues' support.

His doubts proved to be true. Not only other superintendents but also statewide education organizations, from teachers to administrators to others, were concerned that the scholarships sounded too much like vouchers and the expansion of charters could encroach on the territory of districts in other areas of the state.

"A lot of our colleagues were mad at John and me for even suggesting the part that was most disturbing to them, the part about scholarships," Senti said. "Vouchers are a dirty word in terms of the educational establishment statewide."

And because the Missouri Constitution has a pretty impregnable barrier against vouchers for religious schools, in the so-called Blaine Amendment, Senti thought that the new plan was acceptable. His counterparts weren't so sure, and they weren't happy at the prospects of having public school districts starting charters, either.

"Across the state," he said, "people are automatically against charters, even within the public sector. They think if that ever happens, their little district would have enrollment taken away from them."

Senti was looking at it from another perspective. A long-time champion of the area's desegregation program, he said the busing plan essentially lets county school districts act as charter schools for city students.

"How could I be in favor of that program and not be in favor of charter schools?" he asked. "But most people think I'm a turncoat because I'm in favor of charter schools."

A City-County Meeting

Senti said his idea for county districts sponsoring charters in the city would fit well with the large number of vacant city school buildings now available. Kelvin Adams, superintendent of schools in St. Louis, has said he would like to see the district sponsor charters to provide other educational options for students living in the city.

Having county schools sponsor charters in the city would work well for a lot of reasons, Senti added, helping to solve the problem of quality educational alternatives that the Turner case is addressing.

"It would provide choices for anybody in the city to go to," he said. "And because the city schools are in a different retirement system from the county, you could recruit retired teachers from the county and have some really sharp people, combined with young people who want to change the world and work with programs like Teach for America. I think we could do a dynamite job with something like that.

"Once I get into CSD, that will be my job, to try to convince the CSD school districts that this would be a good idea."

Unfortunately, few people in Jefferson City were so enthusiastic. Cary says the plan would have been similar to what Arne Duncan, now the secretary of education, did when he ran the schools in Chicago. He said legislation proposed by Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, would have made the transfers work in a more rational way.

But the whole idea got wrapped up with the issue of scholarships, even those for non-sectarian schools. Senti said that Cunningham's political views may not have helped the cause either, calling her a "lightning rod" for some members of the General Assembly.

"No matter what she wants to get passed," he said, "a lot of people are against it because she's in favor of it. I think that's too bad."

He also noted that if the Supreme Court's ruling in Turner isn't modified by further action, either in the legislature or in the courts, Cunningham's traditional conservative constituency may not be too pleased with increased numbers of city students attending districts in St. Louis County.

Nor would they like the financial consequences if the 19,000 students who live in the city but are not enrolled in the St. Louis Public Schools, the financial bite could be a big one if they go to the county at the city's expense.

"If the city of St. Louis would have to pay for that many new kids to come into the education system," he said, "it could cost $300 million. It would bankrupt the city public schools, and the state would be responsible for paying that money. Which means it would have to dip into the foundation formula. It would affect the whole state."

Even though the case is still being decided, parents are aware of what it might mean -- and some are trying to take advantage of the situation.

Lynn Beckwith Jr., head of the SAB that is governing the Riverview Gardens district, said that no students from the district have transferred elsewhere under the terms of Turner. But he told a meeting of its Community Advisory Council Thursday morning of a letter he received from the parent of a student who had designs on attending a parochial school -- with the district's money.

"She said her son had recently graduated from Westview Middle School," Beckwith said during a discussion of the effect the Turner case might have on Riverview Gardens, "and he was ready to go to Lutheran North High School. Could I please send her $10,000."

After the group laughed, Beckwith told of his response:

"I told her there is no law that says the district had to do that. Best of luck to your son."

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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