Audrey Spalding
In a sad move, a Saint Louis Circuit Court judge has ruled that Saint Louis Public Schools (SLPS) does not have to pay for students to transfer to a better district, despite the fact that the district has been unaccredited for years.

The ruling is heartless. In essence, Judge David Lee Vincent III argues that it would be too costly to allow Saint Louis City students to choose where to go to school, because too many want to leave. So, instead of allowing those students to escape to a potentially better school, they have to stay to help perpetuate a failing system.

As Robbyn Wahby, executive assistant to the mayor of Saint Louis City aptly tweeted: "Status Quo 1-Kids 0."

The Circuit Court's ruling goes directly against a Missouri law that states: "[Unaccredited districts] shall pay the tuition of and transportation . . . for each pupil resident therein who attends an accredited school in another district of the same or adjoining county."

The judge was able to sidestep that law by citing a 2011 study that estimated that more than 15,000 students who live in Saint Louis City would transfer to a school in a neighboring county if given the chance. The survey estimated that about 8,000 of those students would come directly from SLPS, with the remainder coming from a mix of charter schools and students participating in a voluntary transfer program.

That study estimated that the total cost of paying for transportation and education for those 15,000 students would be nearly $224 million each year. With that amount coming out of SLPS' budget, SLPS officials testified that losing that much money would put the district at such a financial disadvantage that it could not serve the students who choose to stay.

In light of that evidence, Judge Vincent views the Missouri statute requiring a district to pay tuition and transportation of students who transfer out of an unaccredited district and to an accredited one as an unfunded mandate.

Though I have some questions about the math (15,740 students at $224 million comes to $14,231 per student, which appears to be cheaper than SLPS' per-student expenditures of $15,861), the estimated cost is a symptom of a bigger problem.

The very fact that 15,000 students in Saint Louis City want to leave for a better school should be evidence enough that severe educational reform is needed. This is not a problem we should push aside because it will take some work to solve.

It is time to prioritize the education of students over the funding of districts. If public education dollars could follow any Missouri student to any school they choose (public, charter, private, parochial, virtual, etc.), then we would not be at this impasse. A wider variety of schools could take on the students from Saint Louis City who want to leave, and ease the potential burden of new students on the public school districts refusing to let city students in.

Frankly, closing bad schools is one option worth considering. If that is what is needed to ensure Missouri students have access to a quality education, then it is the right move.

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Audrey Spalding