KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Nearly one-third of St. Louis students would change schools if they were allowed to take advantage of a contested state law that allows them to transfer to better-performing districts, according to a study conducted as part of a lawsuit. If that happened, the district would have to pay millions in tuition and transportation costs.
A coalition called the Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis said the transfers could bankrupt St. Louis Public Schools.
At issue is the law requiring unaccredited districts to pay tuition and transportation to send students living within their boundaries to accredited schools in the same or an adjoining county. After the St. Louis district lost its accreditation in 2007, several families in that district that had been paying to send their children to the suburban Clayton School District decided they were owed free transfers. They sued when Clayton refused to send their tuition bills to St. Louis.
The Missouri Court ruled last year in the parents' favor but sent the case back to St. Louis County Circuit Court. A trial has been pushed back to March to discuss several issues, including a claim by the accredited schools that it's impossible to comply.
Clayton school officials paid a University of Missouri-St. Louis researcher to conduct the study as part of their district's defense. The telephone survey reached 601 households in October and November and has a sampling error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
Based on the family's responses, the survey projects that 15,740 students would leave their current schools if allowed free transfers to the St. Louis County public school of their choice. That includes 8,318 students attending St. Louis Public Schools, 1,746 students attending charter schools and 2,757 students attending private or parochial schools.
The survey also projects that another 2,248 city students attending county schools through a voluntary transfer program, which was established as part of a school desegregation case, would switch to a different school. Currently, transfer program participants are restricted in what school they can attend to make transportation easier.
The study also found that the Clayton district would be the most popular destination if unrestricted transfers are permitted. Because of its proximity to St. Louis Public Schools, the study projected its student population of about 2,500 could swell by 3,567 students.
"It goes back to what we've said along, that we need reasonable parameters under which we can enroll these kids and give them access to county schools," said Chris Tennill, a spokesman for the Clayton district.
Elkin Kistner, the attorney representing the parents, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the poll is speculative and irrelevant. He didn't immediately return a phone call Tuesday from The Associated Press.
"Normally courts do not engage in speculation about problems," he said. "The courts are only supposed to resolve concrete controversies. The Clayton School District is trying to make this something this isn't. They're trying to make this a game of rumination."
The Cooperating School Districts group, which is lobbying for changes to the transfer law, used the survey results to conduct a financial analysis. It estimated that the St. Louis District would face annual tuition bills totaling $174 million, including $32 million to send private and parochial students to county schools.
Adding in transportation and the expense of serving students with special educational needs would make the costs swell by tens of millions of dollars, the group said.
The group noted that because the current law doesn't give districts the right to deny transfers, another potential cost would be constructing more classrooms.
"It is not possible to estimate that expense at this time," the group said. "We can only assume it would be extremely costly."
One other Missouri school district is unaccredited, Riverview Gardens in the St. Louis area. And a second school system, Kansas City Public Schools, loses its accreditation Jan. 1. The analysis didn't consider the effect of transfers in those two districts.