Choice always beats coercion

Updated on August 8, 2013

As “school choice” laws go, this one is sloppy and coercive. If a school district in Missouri loses its accreditation (which means, more or less, that it’s failing), then its school board must pick an accredited district to which it will send students who want to transfer. Parents may choose a different district, but they’ll be responsible for their own transportation. The receiving district can’t say no. And when the unaccredited school district gets back its accreditation, the students must return.

This is not like other inter-district enrollment policies, such as the Schools of Choice program in Michigan, where students may attend any neighboring district—for any reason—so long as that district chooses to participate. Most Michigan districts are happy to take additional students and the revenue that comes with them, but residents in the Missouri districts poised to receive more students under the transfer law there have revolted.

There are three unaccredited school systems in the state: Kansas City Public Schools and the St. Louis–area districts of Normandy and Riverview Gardens, all mostly black. Normandy and Riverview Gardens have chosen to bus students to suburban districts, one of which is across the Missouri River in St. Charles County, which for years has been a destination for much of the white flight from St. Louis and its environs.

Normandy chose the high-performing, mostly-white Francis Howell school system, and some Francis Howell parents, according to the New York Times, have since angrily protested the move, fearing that discipline and academic problems would enter their district. One parent told the Times there would be “troublemakers” among the transfers. A black parent from the Normandy district responded that she feared that Francis Howell parents might “get the hoses out.”

Not surprisingly, the twenty-year-old transfer law has been taken to court. The Missouri Supreme Court upheld the law in June when it affirmed that unaccredited districts had to cover the tuition and transportation costs at their receiving districts. But that didn’t end the turmoil. Some suburban lawmakers, particularly those in and around the Francis Howell district, want to make changes to the law now and give districts some power to block the transfers.

Setting aside the fears and anxieties driving the debate, there are legitimate concerns about the law that legislators ought to address.

First, there should be legal procedures for schools and districts to say no to or to limit transfers if they don’t have space. At least one district claiming a lack of space has tried to turn away some students, but the ACLU says it did so illegally. There isn’t even a procedure in Missouri that allows a receiving district to plan for the influx. When the Supreme Court upheld the law in June, districts affected by the decision didn’t know how much staff to add in August.

Second, choosing where to transport students isn’t much of a choice, especially if their parents fear that hoses and attack dogs will be waiting for them. If these families lived in Michigan, they would have the choice of multiple neighboring school systems that want to take them (participating schools can still limit transfers if they don’t have enough seats). And Michigan families don’t have to first attend a “failing” school to exercise this choice. That’s important because there are four times as many “provisionally accredited” districts in Missouri as there are unaccredited; it’s reasonable to expect that families in those schools want options, too.

A more voluntary and expansive system of inter-district choice is more advantageous than a rerun of 1970s-style busing. Missouri lawmakers might do better to find the right ways and incentives that bring students and school systems together before they help a couple of suburban districts raise the barricades that keep urban kids out.

Clarification: Unaccredited districts must designate an accredited district to which they'll send students who want a transfer. Students may choose a different district, but they'll have to cover their own transportation costs. A previous version of this post didn't state this correctly.

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