D.J. Wilson is a former staff writer for the Riverfront Times, the Houston Press and the Houston Post. He currently freelances for St. Louis Magazine and Stlmag.com. His weekly radio show, Collateral Damage, was on KDHX from 2001 to 2015 and continues to via podcast at collateraldamage.KDHXtra.org.
For all the talk about the need for a legislative “fix” for the student transfer program in St. Louis County, it’s time for people to realize the transfer option isn’t going away, and basically, that is good news.
About 11 percent of students in the unaccredited districts of Normandy and Riverview Garden took advantage of the chance to go to an accredited school in another district. Those decisions are both a benefit for the child and the community where he or she lives, and a wake-up call to the region that public education’s problems and solutions aren’t confined within the gerrymandered boundaries of each of the county’s 24 districts.
The recent agreement by county districts to participate more fully in assisting troubled districts is a small positive step, even if it were akin to a shotgun wedding consummated three days before Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the erroneously named transfer fix legislation. That bill, opposed by St. Louis County school district superintendents, would have allowed charter schools in St. Louis County and provided public compensation for the use of private “virtual” school programs.
The real fix that is needed is for all the districts that receive transfer students to accept a reasonable “cap” tuition that does not needlessly drain state and sending district finances. Some have agreed to a cap of around $8,000, others have not.
Offering a viable transfer option and devoting personnel and resources to improve education in the sending districts are not mutually exclusive propositions. Both can, and should be pursued.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) stepped into this fray because it is the state’s responsibility to provide a tuition-free education to its school-age residents. School districts administer that education, but when those districts fail, the state steps in.
The state, and to a lesser degree the federal government, try to compensate for the vast discrepancies in financial capacity among school districts caused by the jigsaw puzzle nature of their boundaries. Local district funds come largely from property taxes, and no two districts are created equal.
The assessed valuation for the Clayton School District, all 3.2 square miles of it, is $1 billion. The assessed valuation per average daily attendance is calculated by dividing a district’s financial base by its number of students. In Clayton, that number is $427,415. In Riverview Gardens, it’s $35,616. In Normandy, it’s $64,179.
According to 2014 DESE and census data, Clayton spends $17,394 per student on an enrollment where the median household income is $89,479. Jennings, one of 11 provisionally accredited districts in the state, has a median household income of $28,429. It spends $9,911 per student.
Normandy and Riverview Gardens are dependent on state funds. Last school year 53 percent of Normandy’s revenue came from the state, 32 percent was local, and 14 percent was from the federal government.
Various academic metrics further document the chasm between districts. In Riverview Gardens, 65 percent of students take the ACT, with a composite score of 15.6. In Clayton, virtually all the students take the ACT and the composite score is 25.7. Statewide, the composite score is 21.8.
The multiplicity of school districts is one of the most divisive jurisdictional barriers to a sense of community. The fractured local delivery system of state-guaranteed public education accentuates socioeconomic differences and perpetuates gaps in employment, income, and access to post-secondary education.
In St. Louis, it’s far more than where you went to high school that matters, it’s what school district did you have the fortune – or misfortune – to call home. Those invisible yet real walls between districts are kept high and thick by jacked-up housing costs and apartment rents in highly regarded districts.
To the extent that the transfer program can be enhanced by a reasonable set tuition price paid by the sending district, some of those walls that divide privilege and poverty might be weakened and more students, no matter where they live, might have a better chance for a better life.
Meanwhile the surrounding districts, with help from state and federal governments, can pay more money and attention to help the many students who choose not to transfer.
It’s no mystery that the school districts in trouble have high degrees of concentrated poverty. When Normandy and Riverview Gardens lost their accreditation, they had the highest rate of free-and-reduced lunches in St. Louis County.
Consolidating districts to achieve economies of scale and a better mix of poor and not-so-poor students would go a long way to improve public education in every community.
Sadly, that won’t happen. Due to economic segregation, misplaced fear of those from a lower income bracket, and prior home purchasing decisions based on school district boundaries, chances are slim people will accept any substantive change.
Around 1900, there were 125,000 school districts in the United States. That number has dwindled to about 15,000 today. Change has happened, over time, yet more jurisdictional change is not on the horizon.
If school district boundaries won’t change, allowing a few industrious students to follow their dreams and ambitions outside those artificial boundaries, while working to improve the schools that made them flee, will have to do.
Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri- St. Louis.