By James V. Shuls, Ph.D.
Politicians are notorious for answering the wrong question. When asked about legalizing drugs, they may ramble on about healthcare. When pushed on immigration, they'll talk about jobs. Former presidential contender Mitt Romney once quipped to a reporter, "You get to ask the questions you like, I get to give the answers I like."
While the voting public may get annoyed when a lawmaker dodges a question, no real harm is done. It is a completely different matter, however, when lawmakers address the wrong question through legislation. Unfortunately, that is exactly what some Missouri legislators are doing in regards to the law that allows students to transfer from unaccredited school districts.
Currently, Missouri allows students in unaccredited school districts to transfer to higher-performing districts. The goal is to ensure that each student has access to an accredited education. Beginning in the 2013-14 school year, more than 2,000 students transferred – roughly 25 percent – from two St. Louis area school districts to more than 20 nearby districts. Because they were so dispersed, the transfer students were largely absorbed into their new districts with little notice. For the unaccredited districts, however, the transfer program has brought the districts close to bankruptcy and is forcing change.
Urged by state and local education officials, state lawmakers are attempting to "fix" the transfer program. The primary question lawmakers are considering is, "How do we reduce the number of transfer students?" That, however, is not the question they need to address. Students are in schools that are failing to meet their academic needs, and they need quality options right now. The question lawmakers should be addressing is, "How do we make sure all students have access to quality schools?" These are two very different questions and require two very different legislative strategies.
If lawmakers want to make sure students have access to great schools and not simply "fix" the transfer program so that it does not burden the local public school districts, they need to pursue every opportunity to expand options for kids. That means they need to be unbiased about the type of school a student attends—traditional public, public charter, virtual, or private.
Right now, there are high-performing charter schools that want to serve students from unaccredited school districts. What's more, many of these schools are miles closer than other traditional public schools to which students are currently transferring. Yet, current laws do not allow charter schools to take students from other districts. Artificial district boundaries are limiting options for students, and these boundaries should be erased. Missouri should allow public charter schools to enroll students across district boundaries.
The same goes for virtual schools. The beauty of a virtual school is that a student can be anywhere—in a hospital bed or at an Olympic training facility—while completing school work. With such flexibility, it is asinine to constrict the reach of a virtual school to the limits of a district's boundaries.
Just as it makes no sense to draw arbitrary lines around charter or virtual schools, it is not necessary to draw demarcations between public and private schools. Public education is the idea that all students should have access to a quality education at public expense. Though public school districts have been the traditional way of delivering public education, the idea of public education and the district are not the same thing. Indeed, 20 states have created programs that utilize private schools to help deliver the idea of public education.
How do we make sure all students have access to quality schools? Lawmakers must stop dodging this question. Failing to do so means denying students opportunities to a great education.