Missouri School Transfer Ruling Re-Opens Race Conversation

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  • ST. CHARLES, Mo. — Beth Gratta has heard the whispers, read the venomous online comments, and watched with dismay as some of her friends and neighbors publicly condemned a plan to bus 475 students from a distressed urban school district nearly 30 miles away to her children’s better-performing suburban schools.

    Yet Gratta, who teaches in another area district that saw similar demographic shifts a generation ago, said she is hopeful that her daughters, ages 7 and 13, and other students will be more accommodating than the parents, politicians, and community leaders who worry the newcomers will bring increased delinquency, larger class sizes, and lower test scores.

    She’ll find out soon: Classes began Thursday in the Francis Howell district. Nearly 2,600 students from the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts in St. Louis County are leaving for better-performing schools in Howell and other districts after a recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling upheld such moves.

    “The apprehension is still there,” Gratta said. “A lot of the parents feel their children’s education will somehow be lessened.”

    The wave of upcoming student transfers is opening old wounds and reviving difficult public conversations about race, class, income inequality, and other thorny social problems that many thought — or at least hoped — has been set aside decades ago.

    Students at the two troubled district are predominantly Black, with the schools and communities they’re headed to largely White.

    The rancor was on full display in mid-July, when 2,500 people packed the first Francis Howell school board meeting after the district agreed to accept the former Normandy students. Some spoke obliquely of the “wrong element.” Others were more direct, calling for metal detectors at school entrances and predicting a rash of stabbing and violent fights.

    The two troubled districts will be required to pay the receiving districts an estimated $30 million to accommodate the moves. School leaders in Normandy and Riverview Gardens say it’s only a matter of time before they go bankrupt, and state education officials plan to ask the legislature to intervene.

    The fallout could have ramifications across the state in Kansas City, home of Missouri’s third unaccredited district.

    Five suburban districts there allege that the Missouri statute allowing the transfers would violate a ban on unfunded state mandates. A plaintiff-funded survey of Kansas City parents projected that nearly 8,000 students would leave for better schools.

    The latest legal maneuvers have their roots in a 20-year-old decision to change Missouri’s education law.

    In the hurriedly written legislation, a longstanding student transfer law was revised to force unaccredited districts to pay for sending students to nearby accredited schools.

    But little attention was paid to its consequences, since lawmakers at the time were dealing with larger questions about overall state education funding and revamping how schools were accredited.

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