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Proposals could bring dramatic changes to Missouri schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 4, 2012 - National School Choice Week is ending in Missouri with a flurry of proposals that would sharply increase the number of charters, establish scholarships to private and parochial schools, solve the dilemma over students in unaccredited districts transferring to nearby schools and carve the Kansas City school district into pieces annexed by surrounding districts.

Whether the reshaping of schools passes is now up to the Missouri legislature and the state Board of Education. State Sen. Jane Cunningham, the Chesterfield Republican whose bill would bring about the most drastic changes, says if lawmakers don't act to settle what has become known as the Turner case, the courts will.

"The courts have already spoken," she said at a forum on schools at Washington University Thursday night. "They have said the law is clear and unambiguous and must be implemented. It's our responsibility. We shouldn't leave it to the courts.

"The biggest thing that stands in our way are the status quo groups. There are people who protect the status quo and cannot change. But, guys, wev'e got to do change, and if we don't change, the courts are going to force it on us."

Legislative Proposals

The catalyst for Cunningham's bill was the Missouri Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that upheld a key part of the 1993 Outstanding Schools Act. It said students who live in unaccredited districts may transfer to schools in nearby accredited districts, with the home district paying for tuition and transportation and the receiving districts having no say over how many students they would accept.

The high court sent the case back to St. Louis County Circuit Court to resolve details. That trial, which has been postponed several times, is now scheduled to begin March 5. Meanwhile, a second case that also upheld the law, filed against the Webster Groves schools, is set to be heard by the state Supreme Court on Feb. 15; a third lawsuit on the issue was filed by five St. Louis firefighters earlier this week.

Efforts last year failed to come up with a legislative solution to ensure city students got a good education while guarding against suburban districts being overwhelmed by transfers. Many elements in Cunningham's new legislation were included in a compromise proposal she helped put together at the end of last year's session.

Her bill, introduced Thursday and set for a hearing next week, would go much further than just the provisions addressing Turner. It would include these changes to Missouri education law:

  • Establish the Passport Scholarship Program, to grant financial assistance for students up to the age of 21 who live in unaccredited public school districts for use at a non-public elementary or secondary school. Taxpayers could contribute to a qualified educational assistance organization and claim a tax credit for what they give.
  • Allow an accredited school district or cooperative association of accredited districts to sponsor or operate a charter school in or for an unaccredited district.
  • Remove the two-year waiting period between the time a district loses accreditation and the time the state may take it over; under the bill, the takeover could happen immediately after accreditation is lost.
  • To change the current Turner situation, require an unaccredited district to pay tuition and transportation for resident students to attend an accredited district in an adjoining area. Receiving districts could establish criteria for how many students they would accept, based on the availability of "highly qualified teachers in existing classroom space." Receiving districts would not have to include the test scores of transfer students in their assessments for up to five years.
  • In what is called the Hinson Plan, after the superintendent of the Independence School District outside Kansas City, require that if a district outside St. Louis or St. Louis County loses accreditation, surrounding accredited districts must divide up its territory, annex it and draw up new attendance boundaries.
  • Direct the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to establish a clearinghouse to help students in unaccredited districts transfer to an accredited district, a charter school, a virtual school or a nonpublic school using a Passport scholarship.
  • Require student performance to be a factor in teacher evaluations.
  • Give school principals the right to select teachers for their schools who have shown they are qualified and effective.

Competing Legislation

Cunningham's proposal is far from the only one that would make significant changes in how Missouri schools are run.

Legislation to expand charter schools beyond their current limits of St. Louis and Kansas City also would create a statewide charter school commission and give the state Board of Education more direct authority to terminate operations at failing charter schools.

An initiative petition drive seeks to eliminate future teacher tenure altogether by withholding state funding from any school district that uses seniority in deciding teacher contracts or pay. Contracts would be limited to three years.

And efforts are being made once again torepeal the so-called Blaine Amendmentto the Missouri Constitution to allow tax dollars to pay for education at parochial schools.

At the forum Thursday at Washington University, Cunningham said the Passport scholarship in her bill would let the state achieve the same purpose without amending the constitution. She said that allowing individuals to give money to a charity that would then provide scholarships to students for any school they choose would let parochial schools in St. Louis and Kansas City provide an alternative.

While Cunningham and others discussed education issues at Washington U., the Special Administrative Board for the St. Louis Public Schools approved a proposal that the city schools sponsor a new charter school, the Lighthouse Academies Charter at the current Mitchell School building, beginning this fall. A proposal for a second charter is expected to go before the SAB next month.

Washington U. Forum

At the Washington U. forum, sponsored by Teach for America and the university's school of social work, much of the talk was of forging a compromise between meeting students' needs when their schools lose accreditation while also preventing suburban districts from being flooded with transfers.

"It is a really tough balance to strike," said state Rep. Scott Dieckhaus, R-Washington, who heads the House committee on elementary and secondary education.

"On one hand, we are morally obligated to try to provide equal education for every student. In some areas of the state, that is not happening. The other side of the coin is that we don't want to overwhelm potential receiving district under Turner with a number of students they can't handle. We don't want to change a successful school culture. To find that balance is really difficult."

Policymakers also want to make sure that districts whose own accreditation is already in jeopardy aren't hurt by an influx of new students.

"We want to be able to help kids who are in need," said state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, "but we also don't want for the school districts that are struggling already to sacrifice anything they have already been able to achieve."

With the Kansas City schools losing their accreditation as of Jan. 1, more lawmakers are willing to take a closer look at the situation, panelists said, but the solution posed in Cunningham's bill isn't likely to affect St. Louis.

If the St. Louis schools were to regain accreditation, the issues in the Turner case would go away for the city. Chris Nicastro, Missouri's commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said that the city schools have made progress toward accreditation, but that progress has to be sustained over a number of years before the state board is likely to make that move. She said the accreditation process has to proceed independently of the Turner case.

"We can see they are headed in the right direction," Nicastro said, "and we are very pleased by that progress. But the state board is determined not to put into effect a yo-yo system, where districts can get accreditation one year and the next year fall below state standards. We believe it is important for the district to show sustained improvement over time before it regains accreditation."

Don Senti, who heads the Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis, said he was encouraged by the provision in Cunningham's bill to give suburban districts some say over how many transfer students they would accept from the city. But he also cited estimates to show that the cost of tuition and transportation could drive the city schools into bankruptcy.

Both Chappelle-Nadal and Rep. Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis, noted that they were part of another large school transfer program, the voluntary transfer program between St. Louis and St. Louis County for desegregation. Jones said that spending hours on a bus and traveling from the city to a new area may provide students with a better education but can also undermine students' self-confidence.

Plus, Jones said, it can be just plain exhausting for students to get up at 5 a.m. for a 90-minute bus ride.

"I was a cheerleader," she said. "I was the basketball manager. I did all of the stuff a teenager is supposed to do, then I got home late, had to do my homework and get up the next morning and start all over again. There was bullying on the bus. I was the skinny kid with braces and glasses. They used to talk about me all the time.

"I don't want my son on a bus for an hour and a half each way. I don't want city kids to have to go through what I went through just to get a good education. I know we can try to find solutions for local education in the city as much as possible."

Dieckhaus said that he doesn't think school districts in his area would receive any city transfer students, but that doesn't mean they have no interest in the outcome.

"Our success in Franklin County is entirely dependent on the success of the St. Louis metropolitan area," he said. "We need people who want to live in the city. We need quality education options in the city."

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.