Lawmakers hear plight of St. Louis students at education hearing
After Missouri lawmakers heard three hours of testimony about how bad the St. Louis public schools are and why suburban districts should follow the law and let city children transfer for free to county schools, they got a moving lesson about how a seemingly abstract education policy can hit home.
Matthew Hollingsworth told members of the Joint Committee on School Accreditation that he and his two sons had to move from the city into his mother's house in St. Louis County to get into the Maplewood-Richmond Heights schools. But after two years, the district said his sons Tristan and Bailey couldn't attend there anymore.
Now, they are in the Mehlville schools. Hollingsworth said he would not send them to Roosevelt High School, which is where students in their old city neighborhood go, because he wants them to have a better education than they could get there.
Parents and their children should not be put through such a wrenching experience to get their children a quality education, Hollingsworth told the lawmakers.
"I don't want to move out of the city of St. Louis," he said. "I was born and raised in the city of St. Louis. I love the city of St. Louis. It's a wonderful city. But the school system sucks.
"I want to send my children to the best public school so they can have the best quality of life. That's the goal for every parent. They want better for their children, but we can't get that with the school system we have now."
Hollingsworth said he had inquired at several St. Louis County districts about whether his sons could attend school there under a law now under review in what is called the Turner case. That law says that if a school district is unaccredited, as St. Louis and Riverview Gardens are now, students who live there may transfer to any district in an adjacent area. The home district must pay the tuition, and the receiving district would have no say about how many students they accept.
But at every district he approached, Hollingsworth said, the answer was the same â they were waiting to see what the court would decide before accepting city students.
"They said, "We'll put your name down on the list and we'll contact you after the judgment,'" Hollingsworth said.
After his father testified, Tristan, who is in 10th grade, told his story to the lawmakers, prompting Sen. Jane Cunningham (right), R-Chesterfield, who chaired the hearing, to comment on his plight.
"I feel terrible that you're put into this situation," she said. "I feel terrible you're in this situation because legislators have not moved faster.
"If there is a public school superintendent in this room, will they take this young man? Please don't have us sit here and have a young man cry because he cannot be accepted here and he's been jerked around by these schools."
No superintendents were in the room to take Cunningham up on her plea, which was a dramatic coda to testimony earlier in the afternoon. About 100 people initially packed a room at City Academy for the hearing, with the audience dwindling as each hour passed.
In the past, much of the discussion around the Turner case and possible solutions has centered on whether the county districts have room, and whether they should be forced to take any city student who applies.
But testimony at Thursday's hearing on the issue gave equal time to the other side of the equation: How to improve the quality of education in the city so students who live there would not have to go elsewhere.
Mayor Francis Slay (right) put the case starkly: Recent census figures show that all of the population loss suffered by the city in the past 10 years comes from young families whose children have reached the age where they start school. The city is attracting young educated professionals, he said, but they don't stick around when their children start growing up.
Until that situation is turned around, Slay said, the city's other priorities â safety, health, opportunities for individuals for businesses to succeed â will suffer.
"We need to retain people," he told the legislative panel, "but once they have children, they are moving somewhere else. I'm here to advocate for what works to offer the families and children of St. Louis quality public school choices â today, not 10 years from now but today."
He noted that even when families stay in the city, they often send their children to private schools, parochial schools or to county schools under the desegregation program. The city has some terrific public schools and high-quality charters, he added, but not enough.
"Many parents have options," Slay said, "but far too many do not. If you have money, you have choice. But you should not have to be wealthy to get a good education in the city. You should not have to be lucky to get a good education. You should not have to uproot your families to get a good education for your children.
Saying that a good education is the bottom line, Slay added:
"Until we have a quality public school for everyone, I will strongly support alternatives that allow all city parents to send their kids to an adjacent district in St. Louis County."
A Failing System
Much of the testimony at the hearing spelled out what witnesses perceived as the unfairness of being stuck in a failed school system.
Several firefighters told how the city's residency requirement severely limited the choices for their children's education. (Read more about their plight "Alarmed by lack of good school services, firefighters consider joining education lawsuit"). Representatives of the Army told how city students often scored too low on entrance tests to be able to enlist.
In terms of options, George Henry, superintendent of schools for the St. Louis Archdiocese, noted that his schools have nearly 8,000 empty seats in St. Louis and St. Louis County and are willing to accept city students, educating them for about half of what many public schools have to pay.
He noted that the Catholic school system is accredited by an agency that is recognized by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Asked whether the parochial schools would accept tuition tax credits that would put them under DESE's supervision, Henry said it depended on how the legislation was written and whether the move would interfere with the system's mission and purpose.
And he stressed that students who go to Catholic schools do not need to be Catholic, noting that four out of five current students are not.
"We're not proselytizing," he said. "They do not have to become Catholic or join the Catholic religion."
Cunningham, who worked unsuccessfully in the last legislative session to come up with a remedy to the student transfer case (read more at "Compromise to solve school transfer suit couldn't make the grade"), started the hearing by noting that the law is fairly clear in stating that children who live in unaccredited districts â a situation that will include Kansas City starting Jan. 1 â have the right to transfer.
Without clarification of the exact requirements of the law, she added, the dilemma will only get worse.
"We've got a chaotic situation here," Cunningham said. "We have an urgent situation, and it continues to become more that way as schools become unaccredited."
Any answer, she said, must make sure that none of the students' rights to a quality education are taken away, while at the same time protecting suburban districts from being overwhelmed by an influx of students that they can't handle.
"If we are not able to come to a solution," she said, "then I guess all that will be left to do is make sure that law that we have is enforced. What we want are your ideas so we can turn them into legislation and hopefully find a solution that will work."
Not everyone who testified was dissatisfied with the city schools. Byron Clemens, a vice president with Local 420 of the city teachers' union, noted progress that has been made and urged that the state lower the mandatory age when children start school to 5, from the current mandate of age 7.
He acknowledged that some city schools are not making the grade, but he said that others are among the tops in Missouri.
"We're all over the place," Clemens said, "but we have some of the best options currently in the state."
And Susan Turk, a longtime advocate for the city schools, engaged Rep. Scott Dieckhaus, R-Washington, who heads the House Education Committee in a sharp discussion about the quality of the St. Louis schools.
Rather than pass legislation that expands school choice, Turk urged the lawmakers to limit the choices for city parents, so they would have to give more support to a school system that needs all the attention it can get. She said DESE should follow its own rules and give the city schools provisional accreditation, so the Turner suit would no longer apply.
Dieckhaus countered that the situation involving city schools has been going on for decades, with little improvement to show for it.
"I'm not going to help in any way a school system I wouldn't send my own children to," he said.
"It is possible to get a good education in the city schools," Turk insisted.
"It is possible," replied Dieckhaus, "but it is not likely at this time."
Contact Beacon staff writer Dale Singer.