School Choice, But Only for Some

Photo Credit: Stephanie Cordle, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Photo Credit: Stephanie Cordle, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

There have been some interesting discussions regarding k-12 education in Missouri as of late, and I’ve been following the proceedings with much interest here in Indiana. I grew up in St. Louis, so I’m well acquainted with the schools involved with this recent controversy, and I’m also curious to hear if similar controversies have popped up in other cities with struggling, unaccredited schools.

In 1993, a Missouri state law was passed that created a simple provision for students and parents stuck in bad schools: If your local school district lost its accreditation from the state, students would have the ability to transfer to a nearby accredited school. In 2007, the St. Louis Public School District lost its accreditation (it has since regained it), and some parents began to look for other schools to send their children. One parent began paying tuition to the Clayton School District (an excellent public school district just outside downtown St. Louis), but eventually asked Clayton to send the bill to the St. Louis Public School District. Clayton refused, and she sued to have SLPSD cover the tuition tab for her children. Just last month, the Missouri Supreme Court issued on opinion on the case essentially arguing that yes, unaccredited school districts must foot the tuition bill (and transportation costs) to send students to accredited school districts within the same county or an adjoining county. That last qualification is extremely important because it offers the opportunity for students in impoverished urban areas (who are mostly black) to go to schools in suburban counties (where most of the students are white).

Sadly, the Normandy school district in St. Louis county has recently lost its accreditation. For many of us, this does not come as much of a surprise. The district is located in North St. Louis, which is arguably the worst area of the city (not including East St. Louis, which is actually in Illinois), and a May article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch named Normandy High School the most dangerous school in all of St. Louis. Many people, however, were surprised to hear that the Francis Howell school district in suburban St. Charles county is gladly welcoming students from Normandy to attend school in their district. While many parents in Normandy who are tired of the district’s poor performance are making plans to have their students leave the district, Francis Howell’s decision has sparked much controversy in St. Charles county, where concerns have ranged from overcrowded class to problems of funding and security.

This past Thursday, the school board for Francis Howell had their first public meeting since the Normandy decision, with roughly 2,500 residents attending the meeting. There was some support for the district’s move, especially from teachers and students (which is telling). However, I get the impression that many parents voiced opposition to the move. Some of these concerns are legitimate. Francis Howell Superintendent Pam Sloan announced that Normandy students who transfer to the district will have their state test scores included in Francis Howell’s reports, not Normandy’s. To have Francis Howell’s scores possibly drop–and subsequently have funding for district schools, teachers, and classroom resources drop–because another school district failed to properly educate a portion of their students is completely unfair to me. It also reinforces my belief that having so many crucial elements of public education based on one silly test is wrong for our students and educators, perhaps even immoral, a term I don’t use lightly.

To see what was being discussed at the meeting, I followed the Twitter feed of 1120AM KMOX Reporter Michael Calhoun, who was live-tweeting the meeting and providing some interesting info that did not make the pages of the Post-Dispatch. What were people saying?

You can make your own conclusions about these comments, but I think it’s also important to remember that parents in Normandy aren’t excited about the failure of their school district either. Having their kids go to a new district 40 minutes away from home to an area that seems to be fairly hostile to their arrival is unappealing. Ultimately, parents and students from both districts are in a tough situation with no easy answers.

That said, the root of this problem (if you want to view it as such) lies with the Missouri General Assembly. I am not interested in playing party politics, but I am interested in the hypocrisy of individuals who talk one way and act another. As has been recently pointed out, many members of the General Assembly supported passage of the original 1993 law and subsequent acts to promote the idea of “school choice,” especially for students in bad schools. By providing parents with tax funds to give students a range of education options–public schools not in their area, charter schools, and private schools–students will have more power to receive a high quality education at a school that better meets their needs, so the argument goes.

Faced with the possibility of Normandy students attending school in his local district, this state Representative stated the following at the school board meeting:

Yes, Representative Mark Parkinson now wants Governor Jay Nixon to hold a special session of the legislature so that action can be taken to prevent Normandy students (or at least too many of them) from attending Francis Howell. First we liked school choice, and when black kids are transferred to other black schools under the guise of “school choice,” we’re okay with that, but now we don’t like school choice. Now we’re dedicated to help fund struggling public schools, apparently.

It appears that Representative Parkinson has contracted a bad case of the NIMBY (Not in my backyard) virus. School choice is good, unless the poor kids pick my backyard. To be sure, it’s not so much that I have a strong view one way or the other towards school choice (I’m not really sure at this point). I just can’t stand the hypocrisy and indecisiveness of some of Missouri’s elected leaders. People in Missouri deserve better than that, and their school districts deserve legislative leaders who will value the input of ALL public schools and their teachers. If we’re going to allow school choice in Missouri, that means enforcing the laws already on the books and giving poor parents the ability to send their kids to accredited schools. School choice just for middle and upper class parents who want to “choose” between their local public and private schools is unfair.

Those are my thoughts on the matter. What do you think?