"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Senator Chappelle Nadal Struggles with the Right to an Education

Last night, the Washington University Brown School Policy Forum and Teach For America held a public forum to discuss St Louis Public Education. On the panel were: Senator Chappelle-Nadal (District 14), Senator Cunningham (District 7), Representative Dieckhaus (District 109), Representative Jones (District 63), Dr. Nicastro (Commissioner of Ed), and Dr. Senti (Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis.) The discussion focused on the Turner Decision, the previous legislative stalemate on a solution, and the current legislative "fix" proposals. 

Quick review of the facts: In Missouri, according to the constitution, you have a right to a free public education.  Additionally, you have a right to go to school in a neighboring accredited school district if your district loses its accreditation. St. Louis City school district lost their accreditation last year. Families attempting to transfer into neighboring districts were denied entrance because the districts claimed they did not have the space to accommodate them. The Turner family sued to claim their right to attend the neighboring district and won. The fix that is needed must recognize the both rights of the unaccredited district students to an education, and the rights of the neighboring districts not to be overrun and undercompensated for all the students transferring in.

Senator Chappelle-Nadal, through her statements, made it clear that she struggles with this right guaranteed in the MO Constitution. It seemed as if she were confusing it with one's Miranda Rights which say, if you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided to you by the state. Notice the MO Constitution does not say, if you cannot afford to pay for your own education, the state will provide one for you. Senator Chappelle-Nadal seems to think that those families who are currently finding a way to pay for private education in the city, because the public education provided by the city was substandard, should not be afforded the right to a free education like everyone else.

This attitude may stem from frustration over what has been a bungled system for many years.  Students in private schools are not counted in the public funding formula. For those families to now have an avenue to exercise their right to a free public education means an increase in the number of students who have to be added to the funding calculation.  Missouri has not met its full education funding requirements for years and this just exacerbates the problem.  With the massive budget deficit the state is facing now, this just makes the legislature's job that much more difficult.  It is however, a reality, and the legislature cannot just ignore the rights of some families because it makes their job more difficult.  That was basically the decision in the Turner case.

The proposed solutions in the legislature now include: 
  • Providing a business tax credit, as is done with the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTCSP), which allows businesses that contribute money to nonprofit Scholarship-Funding Organizations (SFOs) to receive an income tax credit. SFO's award scholarships to students from families with limited financial resources. This fix is being considered because the St Louis Catholic Schools have already told the legislature they have 8,000 seats waiting in their schools and would love to take in  students from the unaccredited district. This gets around the Missouri Constitution's  Blaine amendment which prohibits funds from the public treasury to be used to fund schools with religious affiliations. So long as the money does not go through the state's hands, it is not in conflict with the Constitution.
  • Another option being considered is a clearing house where districts can list the seats they have available which can then be matched with students looking to transfer.  This option provides some stability for the receiving districts.  The biggest obstacle here is the issue of funding. There is no consensus yet on how much these transfers will cost the receiving districts.
And of course the state cannot just abandon the St Louis district. They have been making improvements and it is hoped that they can regain accreditation. That will take a minimum of five years so they don't have, as Senator Cunningham called it, the yo yo problem with district falling into and out of compliance every other year.  She assured parents that students taken into the transfer program would be allowed to stay for the duration of their k-12 education. That made sense.  Her next comment, not so much.

There is a true concern of a slippery slope with the failing school district. Families transfer out or move out of such districts which means there is less money still in the district to try to fix it. Once you get below a certain level, the district faces bankruptcy.  No family wants to move into an area without a school so there is tremendous pressure to fix the St Louis schools.  If not, you end up with the Detroit public schools, where urban flight has resulted in consolidation and class sizes up to 60 students. Senator Cunningham saw a silver lining in the St Louis situation and the Turner Decision.  She predicted that open enrollment would actually draw good families INTO St Louis, knowing they would have their pick of schools. The air must be getting pretty thin up there in the clouds to think that a lot of families would want to move to an economically depressed region where their children were guaranteed a long commute to school every day, twice a day, where something as simple as being a cheerleader would require tremendous family coordination to accommodate practice schedules and where there was no guarantee they could get into the specific district that they wanted. What exactly would the chamber of commerce put on its billboard? "Come to St Louis - where your child can go somewhere else to school!"

Senator Cunningham noted last night that the Kansas City schools, who as of January 3rd this year faced a similar dilemma due to the loss of their accreditation, have already solved their problem by having "collar districts", those surrounding the city district who may also be within the city's boundaries, annex the city schools and assume governance for them.  The Catholic schools have similarly offered their services there. The panelists blamed those supporting the status quo in St Louis for blocking progress on a fix here. Specifically they were referring to the Cooperating School Districts,  MO Association of School Board Superintendents,  and the Association of School Board Members.

Frederick Mann set us up for a whole host of problems back in the early 1800's when he pushed for free public education. It sets up a line item on state budgets that never goes away and is under constant pressure to grow. Free things are rarely appreciated. Frequently they are tossed away because their value is perceived to be very low. We know education isn't free, but when you're not specifically paying for it out of your pocket and it is described as free in the constitution it is easy for people to think of it as free of cost. And once you make it mandatory you take away a very useful tool, the threat of removing the item or service, which could be used to motivate those who are not putting any effort into their education.  It is a recipe for failure.

Representative Dieckhaus also struggled with the concept of a guaranteed right to an education, confusing it with a societal moral obligation to provide this service. That kind of language plays well on a campaign trail, but actually makes the legislature's job even more difficult because it enflames discussions like this and makes providing solutions far more tricky.

No one on these panels ever comments on why these public schools are failing. They also don't make specific proposals on how to change them.  But the audiences at these types of events are not staying quiet on the topic anymore. You can hear them begin to address this issue in their questions.  Eventually the politicians are going to have to name the problems because that is the first necessary step to fixing them.


  1. What if the problem is the students and not the teachers and not the schools? What if the students are the cause of non-accreditation? Sending these students to collar communities will bring these collar communities down.

    1. Its just like business. If the empolyee can't cut it, you find one who can. It's time to end the excuses.

    2. If it were simply a matter of finding a great teacher or a new way of teaching, Teach For America, with their incredibly bright enthusiastic teachers who are trained to think outside the box of typical education would have turned around St Louis schools in the last decade. They have not. Any more ideas?

  2. I love the graphic used in this post. Says it all.

  3. Rep Tishaura Jones as much as said so when she pointed out that North St Louis had a lot of problems, but then those people moved to North County and now North County has those same problems. Collar communities will get a 3 year moratorium on incorporating those kids in their AYP. That's how long they have to bring them up to speed. So they won't just take in ready-to-go students, they will likely need to add remedial services too.


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