Was Missouri’s Interdistrict Transfer Program Poorly Designed?

(Guest Post by James Shuls)

In the early 1970s the Ford Motor Company designed the Pinto. In addition to being extremely ugly, the Pinto was extremely dangerous. A rear-end collision could cause the gas tank to rupture and ignite. For obvious reasons, the Pinto is regarded as one of the worst cars ever.

At the very least, it was poorly designed.

Many look at Missouri’s interdistrict transfer program, which has allowed more than 2,000 students from the Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts to transfer to higher performing suburban districts, as if it were a Pinto. It has forced the two unaccredited districts to hemorrhage and rest on the verge of bankruptcy.

Is it ugly? Yes. Is it poorly designed? It depends.

In 2013, the year before students transferred, fewer than 20 percent of students in the two unaccredited school districts were proficient in reading or math. Dropout rates were abysmal, and the prospects were slim for graduates of either district.

Now, let’s imagine that the transfer law was not in place. What would be different today? Chances are, the school districts would not be performing significantly better. What’s more, few outside of the school districts would have taken any note of the quality of education being delivered in these two north Saint Louis County districts.

Since nearly a quarter of the students walked out of these flailing districts, much has changed. No, the districts have not gotten significantly better; nor have they gotten significantly worse. The transfer program, however, has allowed 2,000-plus students to have the opportunity for a better education. Moreover, it has launched a robust conversation around the state about how to turn around struggling school districts.

But to understand if the program was “poorly designed,” we have to determine what it was designed to do.

Was it designed to be a school reform model for unaccredited school districts? If so, it failed, since it has drained these districts of necessary financial resources and could bankrupt both of them.

Was it designed as a long-term fix, a permanent interdistrict program? Again, if this is the case, it failed, since the program lacks a feasible tuition system. Currently, tuition ranges from roughly $10,000 to $20,000, depending on where a student transferred.

Is it possible, however, that the transfer program was designed for another purpose, like to create controversy or to spark change?

As I note in my latest paper, “Interdistrict Choice for Students in Failing Schools: Burden or Boon?” the transfer students were largely absorbed into 24 receiving districts with little disruption. In this regard, the transfer program functioned relatively well.

The program has told families in low-performing schools that their children do not have to be doomed to perpetual underperformance. These families took the right to an education guaranteed by Missouri’s state constitution. Angel Matthews, for instance, experienced the benefits that come from choosing your own school. Angel was one of 175 students who initially transferred from Normandy and Riverview Gardens to the Kirkwood School District, and she has embraced the rigors and opportunities of her new school by taking AP honors classes, cheerleading, and running track.

The transfer program has caught our attention, but it is not a permanent fix. Policymakers must now develop new policies that establish quality schools in every neighborhood. These policies must include some form of school choice, lest we fall back into our old pattern of assigning students to chronically failing schools.

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James V. Shuls 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.  Follow on Twitter @Shulsie

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