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Means test to take part in deseg program fails to win support

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 22, 2013 - An effort to introduce a charge for St. Louis families with a certain level of income who want their children to take part in the voluntary school desegregation program appears to be dead.

At a meeting of the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation, Clayton Superintendent Sharmon Wilkinson introduced a motion on the topic, which had been brought up by her school board last year. But after discussion, no one would second the motion.

“I have a feeling it’s dead now,” Valley Park Superintendent Dave Knes told the Beacon. “It won’t come up again. That’s my take on it.”

The deseg program began in the 1980s in response to a lawsuit filed by Minnie Liddell on behalf of her son and children of other black families in the city. The plaintiffs’ victory led first to an intradistrict busing plan in the city, then to the city-county plan that has let black city students attend county schools and white county students attend magnet schools in the city. The program has been extended through at least 2019.

The idea of the means test was broached last year by members of the Clayton school board, who noted that while VICC reimburses St. Louis County districts that accept African-American students from the city at a rate of $7,000 each, many districts in the program charge more than that for non-resident tuition.

In Clayton, for example, for the next school year, tuition for kindergarten through fifth grade will be $10,820, rising to $16,250 for grades 6-12. The district had 64 tuition students enrolled as of December.

The Clayton proposal would have instituted a sliding scale for tuition from families whose income is above that required for participation in the federal free and reduced school lunch program. The requirement would have taken effect July 1, 2014.

William Douthit, the attorney who now represents the Liddell family in the long-running suit, opposed the means test when the idea surfaced last year. He noted that the original constitutional violation that led to the busing program was based on race, not finances, and he thinks race should remain the focus.

“It seems a little disingenuous at this point to change the rules of the road,”Douthit told the Beacon last year.

After the recent non-action on the motion, he said in an email:

"The VICC program was built along a two-way road of trust. There were, and will be, an occasional bump in the road. The VICC program remains a community commitment to quality, integrated public education. 

"VICC parents and the VICC Board trust each other to act with one priority -- the best educational interest of the children. The VICC Board once again reaffirms its good faith commitment to educating children, as agreed, under the terms of the desegregation settlement agreement."

Knes, who currently serves as VICC chair, spoke against the motion at last week’s meeting, saying he thinks it runs counter to the reason the desegregation program exists in the first place.

“To me,” he told the Beacon, “it was about the original intent of the program. It was about race. I don’t think it was about a means test to participate in the program, and I believe it might deter some families from participating if they had to pay the difference between the tuition of a school district and the reimbursement from VICC.”

In an email, the Clayton superintendent explained the district’s rationale for seeking the change in procedures.

"The basic argument was to create a mechanism so that families who had the financial means to do so could subsidize the education of their child(ren) by paying tuition to the county school district that their child attends,” Wilkinson said.

“As you know, this was presented to the VICC board in November and tabled in order to gather more information and legal opinions. Based on the discussion that preceded the motion at last week's meeting, I was not surprised that it died without a second. However, bringing that motion with the VICC Board was part of the Clayton Board of Education's discussions last fall when they unanimously approved the extension of the VST [deseg] program."

Knes said he understands why some districts like Clayton feel as they do, but “I just felt a school district can always choose not to accept students if it feels reimbursement rate is too low.”

Knes said Valley Park currently has 164 transfer students out of a total enrollment of 985, a level that has stayed relatively the same in recent years.

“We feel we have a lot to offer students from the city,” he said, “but we also feel they have a lot to offer us, with the diversity they bring and the opportunity to work with other students.

“We feel strongly about it. We have teachers who went through the program as students. We’ve seen the results of what the program can do for young kids.”

Also speaking against the motion was Keith Marty, superintendent in Parkway. A spokesman for the district said Marty feels that all students should be able to participate in the transfer program regardless of their income level.

A lot of students whose families do not qualify for the free and reduced lunch program would still have difficulty paying additional tuition, he said, and it just didn't feel right for the students or their families to base participation on their income level.