Firefighters must pay to get their children out of unaccredited schools

Wednesday, September 28, 2011 | 9:04 p.m. CDT; updated 9:44 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 28, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY — A St. Louis firefighter said he can't get his children into good public schools in an appeal made to lawmakers at the Missouri General Assembly's Joint Committee on School Accreditation on Wednesday.

St. Louis firefighters' families are locked into an unaccredited school district; they are required to live within the city limits of St. Louis as long as they are employed by the fire department. Their options are to enroll their children in the city's unaccredited district or pay tuition for private parochial schools.

Andrew Hesse has been a firefighter in St. Louis for 12 and a half years and said he currently pays $20,000 in tuition a year for all three of his children to go to private school. Hesse said he's spoken to many potential St. Louis firefighters who won't apply to work in St. Louis because of the problems with the school system.

"What I am asking the committee to do is to please enforce the law as it is written so my kids can have a good school to go to without paying in excess of $10,000 a year to accomplish that," Hesse said. "If that's not doable, at least provide them another solution to access high quality high schools."

The law Hesse refers to requires accredited school districts to accept students from unaccredited schools, sending the bill to the students' old district, according to a 2010 Missouri Supreme Court decision.  That case is now back in the St. Louis County Circuit Court, so accredited districts aren't currently accepting new students, thus leaving them in the unaccredited St. Louis and, soon, Kansas City districts.

"I'd ask that you think of the plight of these students and parents that are kind of trapped by their zip code into these unaccredited or so-called failing schools," Joe Knodell from the Missouri Education Reform Council said."And hopefully a solution can be found for that."

The state's charter school association suggested that expanding charter schools could be the solution to the urban education crisis at the joint committee's first meeting.

Charter schools are public schools that operate independently and are held accountable for academic standards by a sponsor instead of a traditional school district. Typically, charter schools utilize innovative practices to accommodate the needs of their students.

Charter Public School Association spokesman Earl Simms said allowing charter schools to expand could alleviate the problem. Simms said opening unused, taxpayer-financed buildings to charter schools, permitting them in existing school districts and allowing school boards to become sponsors could help in areas with unaccredited schools.

The St. Louis organization Cooperating School Districts said another possible solution is using virtual high school courses, which 61 school districts will begin using next fall. The organization's executive director Don Senti said his online learning program provides a solution without overwhelming St. Louis County schools. The online classrooms would allow students to stay in the same school building while taking accredited classes, ultimately saving money for the state, Senti said.

The joint committee will hold meetings in St. Louis and Kansas City, so members of those school districts can provide their own ideas about alternatives to the problem.

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