The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports in a recent article, “ Missouri Supreme Court affirms students’ right to transfer from failing schools ”, tells the story of St. Louis city parents who enrolled their children in the Clayton School district prior to St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) losing their accreditation.
Once SLPS lost its accreditation however, the parents then sued SLPS to pay the Clayton School district’s tuition fees, referring to Missouri Revised Statute 167.131 that requires an unaccredited school district to “pay the tuition of and provide transportation…for each pupil resident therein who attends an accredited school in another district of the same or an adjoining county.”
A critical point to note: Prior to this case, the law has been interpreted such that a parent had the right to apply to another district once accreditation of the home school is lost, but the law did not require a neighboring district to accept out-of-district applicants. A school could have empty seats in a classroom and still choose not to accept the students seeking the alternative to the failing district. So, whereas the law guaranteed the right to access, the law did not guarantee admittance.
When the Saint Louis Public School district lost their accreditation, many parents applied to neighboring districts and were not accepted. These families, many of whom are living at or below the federal poverty level, have very limited alternatives. Most cannot afford to move to a better district, pay the tuition of a private school nor another accredited district’s school.
The Missouri Supreme Court decision could have huge impact on how the statute is now implemented. Though four judges reversed the trial court’s decision, three judges only partially concurred. The court’s opinion states that the language in Missouri statute 167.131.2 “gives a student the choice of an accredited school to attend, so long as that school is in another district in the same or an adjoining county, and requires the chosen school to accept the pupil.” The analysis provided in the decision says the statute is “straightforward and unambiguous”.
The outcome of the current Supreme Court case, which is now returning to the lower court for review, remains to be seen. The plaintiffs involved may not get their previous tuition covered because they enrolled their children under tuition agreements, not calling upon their rights in the Missouri Statute, and they did this prior to the loss of SLPS’ accreditation.
Assuredly, parents of more than 34,000 students in St. Louis City and Riverview Gardens public school districts, as well as thousands of parents in Missouri’s 9 partially accredited districts are encouraged by the Supreme Court’s affirmation of not only the right to apply, but the legal obligation of the neighboring district to accept the out-of-district students.
The key impact that Missourians will be watching as a result of this case is the possibility that the statute may grow some teeth and unaccredited districts may see a big increase in the exodus from their failing schools and they’ll get to foot the bill. Much depends on the outcome of this case.
School superintendents around the state should consider some important education reform measures that have been successful in other states: state managed scholarship funds that have tax credit advantages for private contributors, open enrollment and charter school expansion. All three of these options would provide options for parents of students who are failing in poor performing, financially strapped school districts. If one thing seems clear, it is that the future of education in our state is on the precipice of some major changes. What is not clear is how willing school districts will be to adapt, and embrace, that change.