A group of students outside of Normandy High School just moments after the bell rang at the end of school in Wellston, St. Louis County, Mo.
Photo by Trymaine Lee for MSNBC

Trymaine Lee responded to your questions about Missouri school districts

Updated

Hundreds of mostly poor minority students who used a controversial Missouri law to transfer out of failing schools will be sent back to their home districts next school year, following a tense battle in the legislature and a slew of politically charged decisions by the department of education.

Read the full story by Trymaine Lee, then check out the author’s responses to your questions about the issues below. He touches on public school funding, the barriers many schools face to attaining accreditation, tuition caps for transfer students, and more.

Wells24: Don’t the schools get funded from the community they serve? Doesn’t that mean that the schools in poor communities will always be more poor than the schools in wealthier communities? How do you fix that?

Trymaine Lee: Indeed, the funding formula for most public schools relies almost entirely on local taxes. Richer communities tend to fare better in terms of dollars allocated to schools than poorer ones. But there is also state money dedicated to education. This is an issue all across the country, not just Missouri. In recent years, as states have hunkered down and tightened budgets, state education dollars have been cut dramatically. Look no further than Pennsylvania where the governor there has cut $1 billion (yes, with a b) from education.

“Richer communities tend to fair better in terms of dollars allocated to schools than poorer ones.”
Trymaine Lee, in response to Wells24

Casey Ann: I am Black, and I live in one of Normandy’s neighboring districts; my kid’s elementary school has been negatively affected by the Normandy transfer. Why/how does it make sense to send failing students to school with students who’ve earned their good reputation? Where would be the incentive to earn back Normandy’s accreditation? 

Trymaine Lee: Long before the Missouri Supreme Court ruling that allowed students to transfer if they attended failing, unaccredited schools, Normandy had been in trouble. It had ebbed on the fine edge of accreditation for years. There’d been trouble brewing on the board of education, low academic outcomes and an overall violent school environment.

The basis for the law was born out of cases out of nearby St. Louis city, where a voluntary school desegregation program had been launched to chip away at decades of racial and economic segregation. The law was written about 20 years ago as the St. Louis Public Schools teetered on the brink of failure. It was designed to unshackle students—who attended their local, often poorly performing schools by no real choice of their own— from bad schools. It also presented school district leaders a clear ultimatum: find a way to better educate your students or else you’ll face something akin to a nuclear option. That nuclear option was that those students could transfer and the district would be stuck with the bill.

But nobody had the wherewithal or foresight to think that day would actually happen.

“… the white students seemed to have done a much better job of welcoming their fellow peers to their new schools than the grown-ups.”
Trymaine Lee, in response to Casey Ann

I think one of the issues in this case is the way you yourself have framed the exodus from the failing schools.

“The students would be infecting other schools like a plague,” you say. “This is not a racial issue, but one of safety.”

Your concerns sound very much like those white parents who assumed the poor, black students from Normandy would bring a gang-banging and shootouts to their nice, white schools. It has been a year and none of that has happened. In fact, the white students seemed to have done a much better job of welcoming their fellow peers to their new schools than the grown-ups. I have to imagine there will be many missed friendships and hurt feelings as a result of these children being sent back home.

Brushrop03: I’m trying to figure out how it cost $20k per student a year. Where is all this money going? 

Trymaine Lee: I think there are a number of people wondering the same thing. As part of the restructuring of the Normandy school district, officials also capped tuition that can follow transferring students at $7,200. After the Francis Howell School District said that it would no longer accept non-resident, tuition-paying students, a number of other districts followed suit. Some believe districts are doing so in response to the capped tuition rate. According to various sources, the average per-pupil spending for a public K-12 student is about $13,000.

Kev1966: If I was one of these kids, I would ask why did the school district in Normandy give up on us??

Trymaine Lee: Many of these students, as you mentioned, do feel given up on. Many drop out or disconnect from schools. The question is how school districts keep these students engaged. And how can the public hold these schools accountable? In the case of Missouri, at least for a time, that accountability meant allowing students to flee failing schools. With the latest turn of events, it’s not clear what that will mean moving forward.

Read the entire Q&A here.

Follow Trymaine Lee for more stories and conversations like these. 

(This Q&A was edited).

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Trymaine Lee responded to your questions about Missouri school districts

Updated