Funny You Should Mention It …
On July 31, the Post-Dispatch ran the following letter I had written to the editor:
Society makes a promise to children that no matter their race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, every child should have the education necessary to realize his potential. For many children in Saint Louis, however, that promise has been broken.
Saint Louis Public Schools maintains a handful of excellent institutions, but for three years now, the state has deemed the district as a whole to be unworthy of accreditation. State law requires that if a school district fails to maintain accreditation, the students living in that district must be given the opportunity to escape their troubled schools and attend accredited public schools in nearby districts. Just as SLPS was about to lose accreditation in May 2007, however, the elected school board formally urged county school districts to deny admission to any students seeking transfer under this law — and the county districts complied. For three years, many students from Saint Louis have been denied the educational lifeline provided by state law, trapped in failing schools for years they won’t get back.
Thanks to the Missouri Supreme Court, that now seems likely to change. With a 4-3 decision in Turner v. School District of Clayton, the judges ruled that the school districts in Saint Louis County cannot turn away Saint Louis residents seeking admission to their schools.
It also ruled that SLPS must bear the expense of their students’ education and provide transportation.
The court said that when a Missouri school district has clearly failed its students, that district is required to provide access to alternatives.
Many in the county will worry about the potential challenges of integrating kids from Saint Louis into their classrooms. Elected leaders and school officials in the city will complain about the expense of sending students to other school districts. SLPS will argue that without the money those students represent, the district cannot be expected to make the changes necessary to regain accreditation, and that this decision represents the death of public education in Saint Louis.
These arguments overlook what the law and the Missouri Supreme Court did not: Public schools exist to serve the children, not the other way around. Children in Saint Louis have already had their educational progress delayed for too long. Access to better schools cannot wait until the adults straighten out the mess they created. The welcome impact of the Turner decision is that after years of hollow promises that someday all of the students in Saint Louis would enjoy access to high-quality educational opportunities, someday has finally arrived.
Today, another letter to the Post-Dispatch (predictably) responded that the real problem with SLPS is a lack of funding — which the writer attributes to Missouri school districts’ failed attempts to persuade the courts that taxpayers should be spending billions more in school funding. There are, of course, two massive failures of logic in this letter. The first is the notion that students’ academic performance is linked to the amount of money spent by their school district, a point debunked not only by the research of Dr. Michael Podgursky (who happens to be a Show-Me Institute board member), but also by the fact that SLPS maintains some of the very best schools in the state with the same per-student funding it provides to some of the very worst schools in the state.
The second failure is linked to the first. The letter complains about school funding at the state level, but the question at issue is the failing of Saint Louis city’s unaccredited school district. Last year, SLPS spent more than $15,600 per student — far, far above the state average, and on par with the best-performing districts in Saint Louis County. SLPS also maintains a student-to-classroom-teacher ratio of 18 to 1. This means that SLPS has roughly $281,000 to spend for every active classroom in the district. That’s $281,000 per classroom! Even if, say, 40 percent of that money (more than $110,000 per classroom) went to administrative costs, that would leave nearly $170,000 to pay a teacher’s salary (let’s say $60,000) and to properly equip and maintain just that one classroom.
SLPS suffers from a number of ills, but lack of funding is not one of them.