Friday, November 16, 2007

Opportunity Knocks--Is Anyone Home?

There's good news developing across the country as parents not only ask for, but actively work towards, improving the public educational system. However, in order to take advantage of opportunity, one must first recognize that opportunity exists.

Take the St. Louis Public School District, for example. In an interesting video on Deseg, Magnets and Charters, teachers union president, Mary Armstrong, asks for placement in magnet schools for black children who are on a waiting list while seats are still open--waiting for non-African-American children. Seats in the magnet schools schools are kept empty resulting from former deseg litigation requiring that 2 out of 5 seats are filled with non-African American students. So, parents who cannot get their African-American child into a magnet are requesting Charter School placement. Charter schools are under the state, not the city--so money is diverted from the city public schools to follow the children who make their way to charter schools--all to avoid the unaccredited city schools. The OPPORTUNITY exists to place children in higher performing magnet schools and yet those seats remain unclaimed--because of beuracracy.

Now, take a look at the Kansas City Public School District. The people in that area have been working very hard for years to improve their district. They recognized the opportunity to implement change and finally got it with a resounding vote. Parental choice prevailed in a HUGE way: After three decades of school district failure, over 32,000 voters made their local voice heard about giving 1,500 children a better choice, and nearly 24,000 of these voters voted for a better school (72%). While this win in Kansas City is significant, it is also helpful to put this situation in perspective relative to the crisis before the City of St. Louis. St. Louis City has nearly twice the amount of children trapped in a failing district whose parents cannot vote because they have no address. It is estimated that the City of St. Louis has 1,500 children (5%) who are homeless, and up to another 1,500 (5%) heavily-reliant on sheltered assistance.

Less than a year ago, a tough school superintendant was brought into the failing Kansas City School District. Though there is debate about his approach, at least he seems to have a plan. If his plan does not work, then there will be a state take-over like the one in the St. Louis Public Schools. Though a temporary board is in place for the St. Louis Public Schools, we have yet to receive any word of an actual plan for improvement. While we wait, children suffer. Children are trapped in unaccredited districts and are being refused entry to neighboring districts, though obligated by law (RSMo 167.31). The OPPORTUNITY exists for them to transfer, but since the law is not being enforced, the kids are stuck!

Certainly there is room for improvement. Improvement may require changing systems, policy, broad overhaul--things that will take time. But for the here and now, we have opportunties we fail to recognize--existing laws that were meant to work for kids but aren't being enforced.

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