Riverview Gardens and Normandy Are Regaining Local Control
After a decade of state control, the Missouri Board of Education recently announced it will restore local control to two struggling districts, Riverview Gardens and Normandy Schools Collaborative. While the state intervention brought financial stability and higher graduation rates, it didn’t lead to academic improvement. In 2022, only 12% and 2% of Riverview Gardens students scored proficient or advanced in English/language arts and mathematics, respectively. Normandy students scored slightly higher at 12.4% and 8.4%, but these are still alarming numbers. The lack of progress that has existed for decades under both state and local bureaucracies highlights an important question: why don’t families have the opportunity to send their children to the school that will give them the best chance to succeed?
Around a decade ago, both these districts failed to meet state standards and received the status of “unaccredited.” Because these districts lost accreditation, students were allowed to transfer to an adjoining district—and Riverview Gardens and Normandy had to pay tuition to these nearby districts.
Over 2,000 students (a quarter of the two districts’ enrollment) immediately took the opportunity to transfer—with many enrolling in Kirkwood, Mehlville, Hazelwood, Ferguson-Florissant, and Francis Howell. No receiving district gained more than a five percent increase in its student body. This exodus of students was rooted in families’ desire to improve their children’s livelihood—a sentiment that still exists today. One mother described the ability to choose a different district as follows: “She is thriving and has found a place where she fits in. She feels safe in her school environment and as her mother, I don’t worry about her safety while she’s at school.”
Reverting back to the local control is probably not going to dramatically improve the situation in Riverview Gardens or Normandy; these districts have performed terribly both before and after state control. Parents need to be able to hold these districts accountable. Parents demonstrated they wanted choice back when students transferred out of these failing districts, and they still want it now.
Some people worry what would happen to struggling districts if families had school choice. However, these districts would not simply collapse, as they are allowed to use enrollment from any of the past four years for funding. And school choice could have other benefits for these districts. A smaller student body could lead to more academic success, and the threat of closure could serve as a wake-up call to those who love these school districts.
How much better would it be for a district if students were enrolled because they actually wanted to be there? Perhaps having a student body who actually wants to be at their school would lower the soaring absentee rates we see in these two districts and throughout the state. While I cannot guarantee that parental accountability through choice will save these districts, saving particular school districts isn’t the goal of education policy. It’s giving every student in Missouri the best opportunity to succeed. And that means giving every student in Missouri the chance to pick a school that best fits their needs.