In the wake of the tragic death of Michael Brown, Ferguson, Missouri has taken the national stage for all the wrong reasons. Segregation, poverty, police brutality; name the civil rights issue and, rightly or wrongly, Ferguson has become the poster child. Despite all the ink spilled, few have taken note of a social justice issue that has roiled the local Ferguson-Florissant School District and the St. Louis area for the past year: school choice. No, students in Ferguson-Florissant are not clamoring to leave the school district for better options; others are begging to be allowed through the doors.
Missouri state law allows students from unaccredited school districts to transfer, at the expense of their home district, to a higher-performing district in the same or adjoining county. Last year, approximately 80 students transferred to the Ferguson-Florissant School District from the neighboring, unaccredited Normandy School District, where Michael Brown attended high school.
Although academic achievement in Ferguson-Florissant is not exemplary; compared to Normandy it is a light on a hill. The Normandy School District received just 7.1 percent of all possible points on the state’s 2014 annual performance report, ranking the district last in the state. Meanwhile, Ferguson-Florissant received a score of 65.7 percent, enough for provisional accreditation.
In all, roughly one-fourth of the 4,000-plus students in the Normandy School District transferred to 20 different public school districts in the St. Louis area. The Francis Howell School District was the largest recipient of Normandy students, with more than 450 electing to attend the higher-performing district.
Located approximately 20 miles west of Normandy in St. Charles County, Francis Howell is a highly respected school district. In 2013 the district received a grade of 96.4 percent on the state’s annual performance report. Despite the influx of lower-performing transfer students, that score remained virtually unchanged, climbing to 96.8 percent in 2014. According to data released by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, none of receiving school districts saw significant drops in performance due to transfer students.
The transfer program, however, did create a significant financial strain for the unaccredited Normandy School District. State law allowed each receiving district to set the tuition amount for incoming students. In many cases, tuition was more than Normandy spent per-pupil on students within the district. Add to that transportation costs and an intractable collective bargaining agreement which made it difficult to right-size staffing to meet the demands of a smaller school district, and it is easy to see the law needed to be fixed to make it sustainable.
That fix did not come. In fact, after a series of legislative letdowns and bureaucratic bungles, it looked as if most of the Normandy students would not be allowed to return to their transfer schools this year. The state disbanded the Normandy School District and put in place a new, state-controlled entity. This allowed Francis Howell and the other receiving school districts to determine whether they would allow the transfer students to return.
Fighting Every Transfer
Although the receiving districts benefitted financially and were not harmed academically, several accredited school districts denied the transfer students reentry, including Francis Howell. Enter attorney Joshua Schindler.
Representing a handful of students, Schindler sought and won a court injunction allowing Normandy students to return to their accredited schools. Most districts took the court orders to mean all students should be allowed to return to their transfer schools, but Francis Howell did not. The Francis Howell School District is requiring each student to get a court order before allowing them to return.
Schindler has now appeared in court 10 times representing groups of Normandy transfer students. To date, roughly 110 students have received court orders. If you count the districts that reversed previous decisions to reject Normandy students, the number of those allowed to return to an accredited school because of Schindler’s lawsuits has climbed to more than 400 students.
Trapped in Bad Schools
Unlike other urban school systems, Normandy does not allow students access to charter schools, nor is there a program enabling them to attend private schools through means such as vouchers or tax credit scholarships. The only way for a student in Normandy to receive an education from an accredited institution is for their family to move to another district.
In considering whether to grant transfer students the right to return to the accredited schools, Judge Michael Burton of the St. Louis County Circuit Court concluded, “Sadly, the evidence is crystal clear that the students will suffer if their request is not granted. Every day a student attends an unaccredited school [instead of an accredited one] he/she could suffer harm that cannot be repaired after the fact.”
Despite the continuing struggle of low-income families in unaccredited Missouri school districts to receive a high-quality education, few have joined the cause in support of expanding educational options. There have been no rallies, no protests, no marches in the street to demand justice for the students turned away from the doors of accredited schoolhouses.
It is a tragedy to subject students to substandard education simply because they live in the wrong ZIP code. Indeed, it can be the death of the American dream.
James V. Shuls, Ph.D., ([email protected]) is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and a fellow of the Show-Me Institute.
Image by woodleywonderworks.