The law was supposed to give thousands of students from unaccredited school districts an opportunity to attend higher-performing schools, a golden ticket for some of the neediest students in the state. But the law has triggered consequences that few school leaders, parents or politicians were prepared for.
In one unaccredited school district, Normandy, located in the near-suburbs of St. Louis, nearly 25% of the student body chose to transfer. The exodus has financially devastated the already struggling district because the law requires transferring districts to pay for all transfer-related costs–including tuition and transportation for students who leave. Having to subsidize kids who no longer attend the local school means the district has millions of dollars less in resources for the students who remain.
Photo by Trymaine Lee for MSNBC
Dr. Tyrone McNichols the superintendent of the beleaguered Normandy School District, sits with students at Washington Elementary in St. Louis, Mo. Unable to bear the unexpected financial burden, Normandy will likely go bankrupt by the spring. If that happens the state could dissolve or dismantle the district, scattering students to other poorly performing districts or to schools in far away, possibly unwelcoming communities.
Many of the students who opted to transfer landed in places like the well-heeled Francis Howell School district, just west of the Missouri River and about 30 miles from Normandy. In the wake of the court’s ruling in June, parents in the Francis Howell district packed school board meetings and town halls to denounce the decision. They said they feared that students from troubled neighborhoods would bring drugs and violence. They worried about the potential for overcrowded classrooms and lowered academic averages. A few suggested that metal detectors be erected and that drug sniffing dogs and armed guards be deployed to keep Normandy students under control.
The racial element of the battle was inextricable. The Francis Howell School District is more than 90% white and solidly middle-class. The Normandy School District is about 97% black and the vast majority of its students are entrenched in poverty. But the tensions in this busing crisis are less about racial desegration than academic desegregation.
A blueprint for struggling schools?
The transfer law was written two decades ago when the 25,000-student St. Louis Public Schools teetered on the brink of failure. It was designed to offer students better academic options and also to present underperforming school districts with something akin to a nuclear option: do better at educating the students you have or pay the hefty price of educating them elsewhere.
“The way it was written basically said, ‘Hey, if we ever reach a cliff, here will be the policies that will be in place if we ever fall off,’” said State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, whose electoral district includes the Normandy School District. “None of these districts were supposed to fall off the cliff. It is completely undefined where we should go and what we should do since we are now off the cliff.”
It’s been a long way down and a hard landing. Months into the school year, it’s clear that busing students from poorly performing schools does little to turn those schools around, and that the program’s funding formula is unfair at best and punitive at worst.
So far about 2,200 students have transferred from the Normandy and nearby Riverview Gardens school districts, both outside of St. Louis and two of the state’s three unaccredited districts.
Normandy’s current tuition rate is $12,000 per student, per year. The costs of tuition among the 14 school districts