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Race-based student transfer program could evolve with new criteria

A new study finds that nearly one-third of public school students would leave the St. Louis district if they could take advantage of a contested Mo. law that lets them transfer to better-performing districts.
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A new study finds that nearly one-third of public school students would leave the St. Louis district if they could take advantage of a contested Mo. law that lets them transfer to better-performing districts.

If the voluntary student transfer program that has served more than 70,000 St. Louis area students over more than 30 years is going to continue beyond 2036, it probably will be based on a factor other than race.

At a meeting Friday, the board that oversees the program is expected to approve a final five-year extension that would begin phasing out the transfers in the 2023-24 school year. Students who begin kindergarten that year could remain through high school graduation.

What happens at that point is still unclear. David Glaser, who heads the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp. (VICC), which runs the transfer program, says legally, programs based on race cannot continue forever. But it could be possible to change the transfer criteria so they are based on something else, such as family income.

“I think we can use the foundation of what VICC has done over a long period of time,” Glaser said, “but if we change the selection criteria, it could be something like socio-economics. Everyone believes that not only could we achieve socioeconomic diversity, but we could continue to achieve racial diversity as well.”

And, he added, whether they have taken part in the program or not in the past, county districts have expressed interest in a program based on family income, not just race. Districts in north St. Louis County, for example, could want to take part.

“Districts are unanimous in terms of their support,” Glaser said. “Boards see the benefit of the program, not only for kids from the city but also for their resident students as well, to be educated in a more diverse environment.”

Plus, a new kind of program could bring in new partners.

“Any change in the program is a pretty complicated process,” Glaser said. “It’s something that's really going to take some careful thought and review and analysis before we can move forward, and potentially participation of people in the community beyond even school districts.

“Should there be involvement of higher education? Should there be some involvement of people outside the educational community? I think those are all questions that have to be at least thrown out there and considered.”

If the final extension is approved, VICC plans to get the word out in a number of ways, including text and voice mail messages, advertisements and news stories.

“Whenever you have an important message,” Glaser said, “you need to tell people about seven different times in seven different ways, because communication is hard and it's challenging to get accurate information out there.”

Long history of transfers

The transfer program grew out of a federal lawsuit filed by Minnie Liddell and other black parents in the city in 1972. They were tired of seeing their children reassigned to what they considered to be inferior schools.

After several years of court battles, transfers began, first within the city, then between the city and the county. African-American students in the city could transfer to St. Louis County schools, and white students in the county could enroll in magnet schools set up in the city to attract a more diverse student body.

In 1999, the program was altered by a court settlement that set a 10-year term for the busing to continue. Two five-year extensions have prolonged the program to 2019; the proposed final five-year extension on Friday’s agenda envisions nearly 1,000 more students entering the program.

At its peak, about the time the settlement was reached, more than 14,600 students took part in the transfer plan. For the current school year, 4,471 students go from the city to the county – the first increase in 15 years, by 28 students – and 148 county residents going to city magnet schools.

The county-to-city numbers have been rising over the past five years, primarily because of the popularity of the city’s Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience, which has added a grade each year since it started and is now a four-year high school.

Even though the overall number of students in the program has dropped, Glaser said VICC receives about six times the number of applications each year over the amount of slots available in county schools. He praised improvements in the quality of the city schools and the breadth of what they offer, but he said the lure of education in the county continues to be strong.

“There's still just a lot of interest of city families to attend county districts,” he said. “The county districts have a very good, very high reputation in terms of the quality of education they provide.”

'There's still just a lot of interest of city families to attend county districts. The county districts have a very good, very high reputation in terms of the quality of education they provide.' -- David Glaser of VICC

Currently, Glaser said, 12 county districts accept deseg transfer students. Over the years, some districts have dropped out and others reached a level of resident African-American students that met a target  for desegregation.

The deseg transfers are separate from transfers by students who live in the unaccredited districts of Normandy and Riverview Gardens. That program, mandated by state law, is based on academics and the districts’ scores on their annual performance reports, not on race.

How changes could work

How – and whether – the race-based transfer program would continue under new criteria past 2036 is far from clear.

Glaser said the 1999 settlement agreement would have to be amended or revised, with the approval of all parties involved, including school districts and the state. Coming up with a new way to run the program will not be easy, he said.

“If you have a participation criteria that's race-based,” Glaser said, “a student's race doesn't change. If the student is African-American when they're in kindergarten, they're going to be African-American when they're in eighth grade. On the other hand, if you use a socio-economic selection criteria — let's say that's based upon just hypothetically eligibility for free or reduced price lunch — that does change over time. 

“So what happens if a student qualifies and is eligible as a kindergartner, but at some point, the family does very well economically and the student no longer qualifies. Then are they out of the program? Do they stay in the program until they graduate from elementary school or middle school? Or does it not affect their eligibility. That's just one thing that came to mind that would be different.”

Not everyone agreeswith the legal advice given to VICC that a race-based program needs to end at some point. The late William Taylor, an NAACP lawyer in Washington who was heavily involved in the case, said it could continue indefinitely.

And D. Bruce La Pierre, the Washington University law professor who served as the court’s special master who brought suburban districts into the plan in 1983, has called efforts to wind down the program premature.

The 1999 agreement “is a court settlement, not a consent decree,” he said. “The parties have agreed to it. I would wait until someone sued before I started thinking about dismantling it.”

Those who say that the program cannot remain in perpetuity base their reasoning on a 1991 U.S. Supreme Court case involving a desegregation court order in Oklahoma City. Others say that case may not apply to St. Louis.

The settlement agreement has affected at least two other court cases just this year.

'It's really hard to predict what's going to happen five years from now, much less seven or eight years from now. So obviously anything can and is subject to change.' -- David Glaser

In one, an African-American student, Edmund Lee, was barred from continuing to attend a city charter school after his family moved to St. Louis County. His family lost in U.S. District Court, but the Pacific Legal Foundation, which brought the suit on his behalf, has pledged to appeal.

In the other case, the city schools and the NAACP have gone to court seeking to block any proceeds from a sales tax in the city from going to charter schools, as they have over the past 10 years. Passage of the tax was part of the 1999 settlement, and charter schools have said they could be forced to shut down if they have to repay the more than $42 million they have received so far.

In any case, Kelvin Adams, superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools, says there will be plenty of time for educators and others to decide how, if at all, the program might continue.

“Right now it's a race-based desegregation program,” he said earlier this year. “The question becomes, does it continue to exist past this, but not based on race? And I think that's a decision way, way, way, way down the road. Some other people will probably make a decision about it, not us.”

Glaser put it this way:

“The program is still taking new kids through 2023-24. It's really hard to predict what's going to happen five years from now, much less seven or eight years from now. So obviously anything can and is subject to change.

“I hate to bring it up, but the most recent election is probably pretty good proof that people are not terribly good at predicting what's going to happen two days into the future, much less five years into the future.”

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

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.