The school transfer controversy and the limits of tikkun olam

J. Martin Rochester

By J. Martin Rochester

In June, the Missouri Supreme Court issued its decision in Breitenfeld v. Clayton, overturning a lower court ruling in upholding a state statute that allows parents of children in unaccredited school districts to send their children to any accredited district in the same or adjoining county.  This means that Clayton, Ladue, Parkway or any other such district must take all children who wish to transfer from Normandy and Riverview Gardens, the two unaccredited districts at present.  A firestorm has followed the court verdict, with supporters and opponents exchanging passionate arguments.

To many, this is a matter not only of law but also equality and tikkun olam – the obligation of society to “repair the world,” in this case to provide better educational opportunities for disadvantaged children. To others, it raises troubling questions about the reach of government into people’s lives, the tyranny of social engineering, and how far we should be expected to go in the name of social justice. As the new school year is about to start, it is worth examining the school-transfer issue, which potentially affects every district in St Louis and St. Charles counties.  I find myself on the side of those who worry about the possible fallout from the court decision.  How so?

First, the decision ignores 200 years of local governance of schools in the United States, as Clayton and other districts effectively have lost control of their schools. Second, it is amoral, as it also blithely ignores the concept of private property rights –many people (myself included) spent a small fortune and became house-poor years ago to buy into a high-quality district such as Clayton, only now to see free-riding parents gaining access to these schools without sacrificing a dime, with the prospect of declining property values to boot. So much for fairness.

Third, more importantly, the court order is a recipe for the potential destruction of the entire St. Louis area public school system, as the few pockets of excellence, such as Clayton, Ladue and Parkway, may well be reduced to the level of Normandy, which the Post-Dispatch recently noted was No. 1 in the metro area in violence and discipline problems; all districts will now inherit Normandy’s problems, although it is conceivable one or two could bear the whole burden down the road.  Private school enrollments could soar.

Fourth, since the court offered no parameters, districts may experience utter chaos in scrambling to respond. Although the state education department has attempted to establish guidelines regarding transportation costs, class size, and other variables, these do not have the force of law.  Normandy and Riverview Gardens have each been allowed to designate a specific district they could steer their transfers to by providing transportation. Thus far, roughly 500 Normandy students have applied to transfer to the Francis Howell School District, while roughly 500 Riverview Gardens students have opted for the Mehlville school district.  Again, though, there is nothing to prevent hundreds more in these two districts from transferring to, say, Clayton if parents choose. Mehlville, Clayton and other districts may try to limit the number of transfers they accept, but risk law suits if they do.


Indeed, a report cited in the court case, prepared by my University of Missouri-St. Louis colleague Terry Jones, estimated that a tidal wave of 15,000 students might transfer from unaccredited districts, with Clayton alone instantly doubling its total enrollment under a worst case scenario, especially if the St. Louis City public schools became unaccredited again, along with University City, Hazelwood, and other low-performing districts at the tipping point. There is no end to how many districts could be unaccredited in the future.  Supporters of the Breitenfeld decision cavalierly dismiss these possibilities and concerns.

Fifth, how will the unaccredited districts such as Normandy reimburse the receiving schools, much less shape up, when they are hemorrhaging students? Aside from coping with class size and building overcrowding issues, the receiving districts themselves may experience budget shortfalls. For example, will Clayton, whose taxpayers are already subsidizing the voluntary desegregation program (getting less than half the reimbursement of their per pupil expenditures) also be expected to subsidize the Normandy and Riverview kids’ education as it waits years for reimbursement from the sending districts, who may be unable or unwilling to meet their payment obligations in a timely fashion?  Will Clayton taxpayers be willing to support a tax increase to pay for the education of hundreds of non-resident children? The desegregation program itself could be at risk, as Mehlville has already indicated it is likely to terminate its participation due to the sudden influx of Riverview students. 

What should we do about all this? One can agree that children in Normandy and other poor school districts are entitled to a good education, yet still argue that the state law and court decision represent a huge arrogance of power and harm rather than help public education in the region. Other solutions should be found to address education problems, particularly targeting more resources at low-achieving districts, keeping in mind, however, that any school is limited in what it can do in the absence of strong parental support systems.  A strange coalition in the Missouri legislature has supported the state law up to now –mostly bleeding-heart liberals on one side who are willing to sacrifice excellence for equality and right-wing conservatives on the other side whose agenda is to undermine public schools under the guise of “choice,” joined by other legislators who simply have nothing at stake and are content to allow inertia to prevail rather than fix the law. 

If we care about the quality of our schools in the St. Louis metropolitan area, we should act to undo the Breitenfeld decision.  In keeping with tikkun olam, we should repair the damage.