Missouri School Transfers Panel
It was an issue of great debate throughout the summer that has continued into the school year, and on Nov. 7, the topic of Missouri school transfers was front and center at SLU LAW as the Public Interest Law Group and Legal Clinics hosted a panel discussion, “Missouri School Transfers: Community Solutions to School Accreditation & Dividing Lines.”
This year nearly 2,200 students left their unaccredited school districts for some of the state’s higher performing schools, leaving a path of disruption and high financial loss behind them. Under state legislation passed in 1993, these schools are now faced with unsustainable costs such as tuition and transportation to the new schools and ultimately face the threat of closure. With three districts in the state currently unaccredited (and 11 others in danger of losing accreditation), the law’s implications have the potential to be far more significant than imagined when it was passed 20 years ago. SLU LAW brought together state and regional leaders for a discussion on the problems and potential solutions surrounding school transfers.
[Editor's note: for further background, Dean Wolff and Assistant Professor Taylor previously shared insight on the issue for The Sidebar in August.]
Kicking off the program was Elisa Crouch, education reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She and her colleagues have written more than 80 stories on the subject since June 2013. Crouch presented an overview of “How Did We Get Here,” giving a timeline of recent events, stories of those affected, as well as the origin of the Missouri School Transfer Law.
That led into the panel discussion, moderated by Taylor, which featured Dr. Ty McNichols, superintendent, Normandy School District; Dr. Chris L. Nicastro, commissioner of education, Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; Kate Casas, state policy director, Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri; and Wolff, who was on the Missouri Supreme Court at the time of an earlier decision in the law.
When initially envisioned by the state legislature in 1993, the statute was set up to serve seemingly as a disincentive to school districts. It would be used as a penalty to force improvements to those districts that were close to unaccredited status.
One of the problems with the way the law was written was the lack of details in how the law should be carried out, from how to decide on the receiving districts to how much money the sending schools should be paying for their transfer students. All were in agreement that the way it is currently interpreted is not sustainable over time and would lead to bankrupting the unaccredited schools.
“School districts exist to create local support for schools,” Wolff said. “It’s a state system, but it relies on $3 billion every year that’s collected in local property taxes to support schools. So you need local support, because voters will support money for ‘our children.’ Well who are ‘our children?’ This is a state-wide system; just because one of our children lives in Normandy or Riverview Gardens or Clayton or Creve Coeur, that child might grow up and live in Cape Girardeau or Springfield or Kansas City.”
In addition to wanting changes in the way the tuition and transportation costs are calculated, McNichols sees a need to rework the accreditation process. As it is currently administered, the process does not account for the challenges his district faces. “Some of the things that impact the academic piece have to do with the social aspects of our community as well,” he said. “Poverty is not an excuse, it’s just a reality. Our kids have different resources that we have to focus on.”
It appears support on that front may be building. This week, the Missouri Association of School Administrators proposed a complete overhaul of the state’s rating system.
This plan is something Nicastro is open to and encouraged by. “Our system right now is not working,” she said. “It’s not nimble. We can’t keep trying to find fixes for that system. So maybe we need to think about a completely different one.”
One silver lining reiterated throughout the panel was the acknowledgement that the issue is now at the forefront of conversation, and the community is now engaging in discussion on the topic. “The way we educate kids needs to change,” Casas said. “And that’s what I hope the transfer conversation leads us to. It is time to look at this.”
For more play-by-play of the discussion, check out the SLU LAW Twitter page. Photos from the forum are also available at the SLU LAW Facebook page. Additionally, Crouch’s Aug. 4 article provides a comprehensive overview of the issue.