A ruling this week in favor of parents trying to use the Missouri school transfer law is one small victory in a much larger school choice battle.
The state’s school transfer law, designed to allow parents to move their children from failing traditional public schools to better performing districts, has been in and out of the courtroom since 2014.
In 2014, the state Board of Education took over the struggling Normandy district. When the state took over, officials renamed the district and removed the failing accreditation, which allowed students to transfer. Instead of failing, now the district was referred to as Normandy Schools Collaborative and considered unaccredited.
Because the district was no longer technically failing, many local school boards voted in 2014 to return nearly a thousand students who had transferred from Normandy to better-performing districts.
On Tuesday, a unanimous ruling from the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District’s three-member panel affirmed the rights of children from Normandy to transfer to higher-performing districts.
Some applauded the ruling as a victory for parental rights, but Michael McShane, director of education policy for the Show-me Institute, said he has mixed feelings about the transfer program.
“Best-case scenario, it’s a band-aid on a much bigger problem,” said McShane. “That ultimately doesn’t address what’s really wrong.”
McShane said an unfortunate amount of time, money and political capital ends up wasted on trying to save the transfer law, which for many families in St. Louis County serves as the only school-choice option.
While the state charter law allows charter schools to open in failing districts and those with poor accreditation, no one has attempted to open a charter school in such a district. One concern has been that it is unclear what would happen if you were to open a charter school in a district and then the accreditation of the district changed, McShane said.
“There are more fundamental issues about the way we run our schools, the way we fund our schools, things that are happening on a much deeper level,” said McShane. “The transfer program might be a short-term release valve, but we have to try to fix these larger issues.”
‘Break down the walls’
McShane notes that the demographics of St. Louis have changed dramatically over the years.
Students who once would have lived in the city of St. Louis have families who moved to St. Louis County. McShane contends a lot of small towns and suburbs sprung up in the process, creating a maze of small districts that compete rather than cooperate.
“They don’t necessarily work together all the time,” said McShane. “A lot of these have become little fiefdoms that have trapped their students inside of them.”
“This is the question: how do we create quality schools in these communities,” said McShane. “We have to break down the walls that have been built around these districts and to give students a chance to succeed.”
McShane suggests allowing charter schools to open in St. Louis County and opening enrollment across district lines. The school transfer law could be improved and potentially help more students, he said, but even that wouldn’t be enough to improve schools and student outcomes in St. Louis city and county.
James Shuls, an assistant professor at the University of St. Louis and research fellow at the Show-me Institute, was somewhat more optimistic and applauded the ruling.
“Time and again, state and local education officials have attempted to thwart the rules and undermine the law which allows students access to better schools; and, time and again the courts have ruled in favor of the students,” said Shuls. “This ruling is another huge win for students in Missouri.”