Students Need Choice, Not-Pie-in-the-Sky Solutions
When the chairman of the Black Leadership Roundtable announced his plan for ensuring Saint Louis-area students have access to a quality education—a city-county school district—he was presenting an idea that has been recycled for decades. In his 1985 book, A Semblance of Justice, Saint Louis University sociology professor Daniel Monti wrote, “A review of St. Louis County Board of Education’s deliberations between the 1950s and 1970s reveals three overriding concerns among professional educators and the lay leadership: the merger of all county districts with the city district, the equalization of school tax rates in the area, and the consolidation of districts within St. Louis County.” The idea may have some merit. Unfortunately, it is simply too pie in the sky to ever make a difference for students who need better educational options today.
It is highly unlikely that citizens in high-achieving, wealthy school districts such as Clayton would agree to a merger with the low-performing, poor school district of Riverview Gardens. Yet, even if all the area districts merged, it would not dissolve the pockets of concentrated poverty. Though it’s true that school district boundaries would be erased, the boundary lines around individual school buildings simply would become starker; essentially transferring the problem of housing decisions based on district performance to housing decisions based on school performance.
No, simply consolidating school districts will not solve St. Louis’ educational problems. The editorial board of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch realizes as much. When they called for a city-county school district in April 2014, they wrote that their ideal school district would utilize “some form of open enrollment.” The editorial board implicitly recognized that school choice must be a part of any plan to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged students in the Saint Louis area.
Though the city-county school district will likely never happen, there are ways in which we can expand options for students. For starters, it should be easier for students in low-performing schools to take the dollars allotted for their education to the school of their choice. Missouri has had a successful, voluntary inter-district choice program between the St. Louis Public Schools and county school districts since 1981. With some modifications, the law that allowed Normandy and Riverview Gardens students to transfer to higher-performing schools could be just as sustainable. Moreover, the law could be expanded to allow all students the opportunity to seek the best education possible.
Along those lines, Missouri should allow students to enroll in charter schools across district boundaries. There are many well-regarded charter schools in Saint Louis that would welcome students from Normandy, Riverview Gardens, or other school districts. Moreover, there are many charter schools that would like to open in struggling school districts. They are inhibited from doing so, however, because they can only enroll students from within district boundaries.
Finally, Missouri should create a tax-credit scholarship program to enable students to attend a private school of their choice. Fourteen states now have a tax-credit scholarship program. These programs expand opportunities for students whose needs are not being met, especially students who are disadvantaged or have special needs. What is more, tax-credit scholarships save states money.
We do not need to hold out hope for large-scale changes to area school district boundaries when these solutions are at our fingertips. If Saint Louis truly wants to dissolve the poverty cycle in urban communities, then it should support realistic solutions like charter school expansion, voluntary open enrollment, and a tax-credit scholarship program.
James V. Shuls, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and a fellow at the Show-Me Institute.