Schoolchildren are not bargaining chips.
But that is precisely what the thousands of school-age children in unaccredited school districts in St. Louis and Kansas City have become.
Those children live in school districts that are ill-equipped to provide them with the free and equal education available to their neighbors who happen to live across arbitrary boundary lines drawn decades ago.
In 2010, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in favor of those children and said that they have the right to attend a school district that has the ability to educate them properly. School boards, superintendents and lawmakers have stood in the way.
As the Missouri General Assembly returned to work last week, its leaders rightly recognized that it must resolve that court case — Turner v. School District of Clayton — because the educational futures of tens of thousands of schoolchildren rely on a solution.
Unfortunately, those same leaders, Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, and Speaker of the House Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, want to use the need to reach a compromise on the "Turner fix" as leverage to implement wide-ranging changes to public schools. Not all of these ideas are good or even constitutional. They include increasing the number of charter schools, eliminating teacher tenure and offering tax-credit vouchers to parents who want to use tax dollars to send children to private schools.
End the games. Children are not chess pieces.
As St. Louis educators have found, and Kansas City leaders soon will discover, there is no easy fix to this problem. Simply allowing thousands of schoolchildren to flee unaccredited school districts could undermine real progress in St. Louis while forcing suburban districts to deal with overcrowding and added costs with no time to plan. But punting, as the legislature did last year, is no option either.
So what to do? The legislature should abide by two overriding principles:
Put the children first.
Do no harm.
There is movement in St. Louis, with support in both city and suburban districts, toward a plan that would allow suburban districts to take over existing city schools — many of them empty — and operate them as charter schools. The schools might be supervised by suburban school boards or under the umbrella of the Cooperating School Districts organization.
This form of choice, applied in a unique environment, would modify the existing voluntary desegregation program in which thousands of city schoolchildren are bused to suburban schools. It would have the added benefits of avoiding additional transportation and keeping children closer to home.
In Kansas City, some leaders have proposed a more expansive idea: The city's unaccredited district would be absorbed into suburban districts. That might not be the best solution, but it's a reasonable proposal.
Both concepts could offer children in unaccredited schools more opportunity than they have now.
The legislature's role should be to create the legal environment for local solutions to work. That begins with setting a deadline for implementation and starting the clock.
Lawmakers should pass a bill that requires the Department of Secondary and Elementary Education to produce rules that would allow children in unaccredited school districts to exercise their rights to a quality education — and then let the education experts get to work.
Give them 90 days. Force the local superintendents and school boards to be prepared to act quickly so that kids no longer will be the pawns in a political debate.
Meanwhile, local leaders shouldn't wait for a break in the legislature's political playtime to forge their own solutions. St. Louis Public Schools, already making steady progress, should apply for accreditation. And surely there are brave suburban school boards that will recognize the moral obligation — and the real opportunity — to open the doors to city schoolchildren.
Waiting for the courts or a gridlocked legislature to act is not a winning strategy.
Missouri's early leaders had it right. After paying down state debts, they made funding public education the legislature's top priority. The current debate is only peripherally about funding, but money talks. Properly funding education demonstrates a commitment to all Missouri children.
It's time for state lawmakers and educational leaders to renew their commitments.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.