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Education as a Civil Right

By Peter Franzen, CEAM Director of Development.

When you mention civil rights, many people immediately think about African Americans and women in our country.  Given a few more moments Hispanics and Gays would also come to mind.

By the time I was born, the Civil Rights Act was already signed and forced integration was underway and the Equal Rights Act was passed a few years later. As I was growing up in Oregon in the late 70’s and 80’s, migrant workers from Mexico and beyond were finally being heard.  In the past two decades progress was made in hate crimes and, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and Defense Of Marriage Act aside, Gay rights have also made progress.  All these efforts were undertaken in the name of equality.

As we move into the second decade of the 21st Century, one important issue is emerging from the shadows and taking center stage again in the struggle for equal civil rights.  Across the country despite all the time, effort and money that has been poured into our educational system, there remain huge gaps between African American and Caucasian students and between students attending poor districts and their middle class and wealthy counterparts.

It’s not the first time we have grappled with education as a civil right.  The last time, in the middle of the 20th Century the inequities were as blatant as the racist attitudes that created them.  Today, though, things are less clear.  Well-intentioned people abound, but education is still not improving.  Something is stuck.

And in the 21st Century version of this struggle the lines are increasingly drawn on class distinction over race distinctions.

I’m not a parent, but I was a child once.

I try to imagine what it would be like to send my child off to a school where I know he is not receiving the same quality education as children attending schools just miles away.  I would feel frustrated knowing that there are some other choices I might make, but also knowing that those choices are extremely limited.  I would want to do right by my child, but not having the resources to send my child to a high quality private school I have to wonder if anyone cares.

That’s what low-income parents face everyday.  Without the resources and without options, they have no choice but to send their children to the mandated public school.

We all accept that a good education is the basis for a successful future, so how can anyone be surprised that the cycle of poverty continues going strong in our country when high quality educational choices are not available to so many people?

By now, you may be aware that St. Louis is once again in the midst of deciding education as a civil right.  Now more than four years old, the Turner v. Clayton case is causing everyone in Missouri, and especially the St. Louis area, to think about what our rights are to a high quality education.

The next court date is set for September as the Turner v. Clayton case continues.  However even now there are resourceful parents trying to send their children to neighboring districts following the Missouri Supreme Court’s ruling last fall as part of the Turner case that upheld a heretofore little known Missouri law that states children living in an unaccredited school district can attending a neighboring district at the expense of their home district.

Like so many times before, change will come from crisis.  Without impugning anyone, it is probably fair to say that with everything going on, it has been easy to ignore low-income families who do not have high quality educational choices.  Now, however, Missouri law and two, local unaccredited school districts are forcing the hand.

To give you a refresher on the Turner case, here’s a link to Dale Singer’s story from May 2011 in the St. Louis Beacon.  It’s a good read for background.

Lots of talk, little action on education by Missouri lawmakers

By Dale Singer, Beacon Staff

May 17, 2011

On the first business day after a legislative session that saw a lot of talk but a lot less action on bills concerning Missouri schools, the head of the House education committee found himself in a Washington, Mo., classroom.

After state Rep. Scott Dieckhaus, R-Washington, spent Monday working as a substitute teacher in an industrial technology class — “not exactly my forte,” he said — he took time to talk about the bills that passed, the ones that stalled and the outlook for action next year.

On two of the issues with the highest profile — expanding charter schools beyond St. Louis and Kansas City to throughout the state and coming up with a fix for the “Turner case,” which provides options for students living in unaccredited school districts — Dieckhaus said good ideas were proposed, but various groups couldn’t put aside their differences to come up with an acceptable compromise.

But in Jefferson City, issues often move forward by inches until they cross the finish line, and on charter schools, Dieckhaus (right) wasn’t ready to give this session’s outcome a flunking grade.

“To focus on the bill’s failure is the wrong way to look at it,” he said. “We hadn’t passed a charter bill out of the Missouri House since charters were authorized in the ’90s. It really shows we’re making progress on the issue, and it’s something we could run all the way through the process next year.”

State Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, Dieckhaus’ counterpart in the Senate, noted that two education bills were sent to Gov. Jay Nixon for his signature.

One, SB54, deemed the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, provides greater protection for children who allege sexual abuse by a teacher or other school employee. The other, SB81, bolsters fine arts education.

And he shares the optimistic view that issues that did not make it out of the General Assembly this time around may win final passage in the future.

“We found out some things that would work,” Pearce ( left) said, “and we found out some things that would not work. When it comes to education, people are not bashful. We hear from a lot of folks back home. I have to look at policies that affect everybody, and it’s not an easy task at times.”


From the start of Missouri’s venture into charter schools — publicly funded schools that operate independently of any district and are not subject to a district’s policies and procedures — they have been allowed only in St. Louis and Kansas City. Going into the legislative session, there was a lot of talk about expanding them statewide.

Coupled with the talk of expansion was a call for more accountability for charters. Some have gone under because of poor financial management, and few have shown markedly better student achievement. The charter bill that got the most attention was HB473, sponsored by Rep. Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis. It passed in the House in late April, 86-70, but got caught in the crush of legislation at the end of the session and was never brought up for a vote in the Senate.

Pearce said the bill appealed to a lot of people, despite its failure to win final approval.

“There were some things we could all agree on,” he said. “One, there needs to be more accountability with our charter schools. Some have done a fantastic job, others have not been as good. This was a positive step. There probably is some need for some expansion.

“For the most part, in outstate Missouri, this was really a non-issue because they have not had charters, and there’s not really a compelling need for them. Those who are really involved in the educational community have seen some of the problems they have had and say, ‘We really don’t need that.'”

Adds Dieckhaus:

“The bill got over to the Senate side late, but ultimately we had a couple of differing viewpoints as to what needed to be included. We just ran out of time. But I think a lot of legislators who voted ‘no’ this time around are willing to take another look at the issue. I think there’s a fear of the unknown — not necessarily a fear of charter schools but a question of how they would affect individual districts.”

Amber Simpson, head of the board of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, considers the debate “an ongoing exercise. We just need to keep on doing what we’ve been doing and continue to build relationships with stakeholders in the community.”

She, too, cited competition from other bills, like local control of the St. Louis police force, as one reason the charter bill stalled, even though there was more legislative support than backers have seen in the past.

“It’s really working from an educational perspective,” Simpson said, “that we are public schools and we exist because the public is asking for more options.”

Joe Knodell of the Missouri Education Reform Council said he thought some opposition came from teachers unions and others who thought an expansion of charters would take some of their power away. He also sees an element of “the fear of the unknown” in parts of the state, even in regions where charters are unlikely to take root.

“We support charter school expansion statewide,” he said. “But you had people watering it down from what we would have liked to see. We would like to see local districts allowed to form their own charter schools or make their own schools into charter-like schools.”

Knodell said he also saw the expansion of charters as part of the fix for another knotty education problem in Missouri — the Turner case.


Widespread talk of the Turner case began last summer, when the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that students who live in a district whose schools are unaccredited, like St. Louis or Riverview Gardens, have the legal right to transfer to accredited schools in the same or an adjacent county. The sending district must pay the tuition, the court said, and the receiving district must accept the students.

(Read more from the Beacon about the case here.)

But the high court also sent the case back to St. Louis County Circuit Court, where it began with a suit filed by families whose students had transferred to the Clayton school district. There, a judge put off new action until May 31, apparently expecting the legislature to come up with a fix.

Despite a lot of talk about the issue and legislation that was filed as HB763, which would have given receiving districts more discretion on what students would have to be accepted, the bill did not pass.

Its sponsor, state Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, said he wanted to make sure that students who live in failing school districts have more options, but he also wanted to give more leeway to the receiving districts. Coming up with an acceptable compromise proved impossible, he said.

Now, Stream (right) added, “we don’t know what’s going to happen. There are different opinions. Some think the court will say that since the legislature didn’t do it, we’re going to crack down and say to students in the city that they’re allowed to go to any county district and the city school district will have to pay for it. That will really hurt county districts.

“Others think the court wasn’t as clear on that as they were on other parts of its ruling, and they think the lower court isn’t as inclined to be that hard on county districts, which aren’t at fault. They may come up with their own solution.”

Knodell’s group pushed for a solution that let students in unaccredited districts transfer to county districts. He said the bill did not fail from a lack of trying.

“I’ll give everybody an ‘A’ for effort,” he said. “We met with several organizations, but we never could come to an agreement about what needs to be done. So it looks like it’s back in the court’s court.”

The state school board, which meets in Jefferson City this week, has no power to act on its own, but Turner is expected to be a topic of discussion. Meanwhile, only two students remain in the Clayton schools from families who were the original plaintiffs. They will remain in the district this fall, said Clayton spokesman Chris Tennill.

“We have a pretty good track record in the three years that this has been going on,” he said, “so that we can work things out that the kids’ education is not impacted by the disagreement that the grownups are having.”


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