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Missouri Supreme Court decision could help Missouri students in crisis, from the Post-Dispatch

Missouri Supreme Court affirms students’ right to transfer from failing schools

By Elisa Crouch St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Posted: Friday, July 16, 2010 4:09 pm

The Missouri Supreme Court issued an opinion today that affirms the rights of students in failing school districts to transfer to neighboring school districts without tuition.

But the implications of the ruling, and how it could affect thousands of kids attending unaccredited school districts such as St. Louis and Riverview Gardens, remains unclear.

Lawyers on both sides of the case are reviewing the decision. The court decision, meanwhile, is not a final action. Instead, the Supreme Court is sending back the case to a lower court for futher review.

Even so, a lawyer representing plantiffs in the case said the ruling is a victory for parents seeking to transfer from failing schools.

“Absent any legislative change in the future and as long as St. Louis Public Schools remains unaccredited, children who reside in the St. Louis School District will have the right to go to an accredited district and not pay for it, ” said Elkin Kistner, who represented the paintiffs.

In the case, a group of parents from St. Louis had transfered their children to Clayton Schools, where the parents were covering the cost of tuition.

But when St. Louis Public Schools lost its accreditation due to low academic performance, the parents argued in 2007 that the St. Louis schools should pick up the cost of tuition. The parents cited a state law that declares that unaccredited school districts are responsible for paying such tuition.

A circuit court ruled against the parents, who then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Today’s decision may not be much of a victory for those parents directly. The court ruled that because the parents had previously agreed to pay tuition on their own, they cannot now demand that the cost be covered by St. Louis Public Schools under the terms of the law.

But elsewhere in the ruling, the Supreme Court affirms the right of parents to transfer from unaccredited districts, with those districts having to pay the tuition at other schools. In the majority opinion was not signed by any single one of the four judges who issued it.

Judge Patricia Breckinridge and two other judges offered a dissenting opinion on the question of whether districts like Clayton are obligated to receive students who seek to leave unaccredited districts. She said state law gives receiving districts the discretion to turn such students away under certain circumstances.

But the majority ruled that they say no such flexibility under the law, which they describe as “straightforward and unambiguous.”

Chris Tennill, a spokesman for the Clayton district, said lawyers with the district are still reviewing the decision. He said he is unclear about the significance of the ruling, given that the matter is now being sent back to a lower court for further review.

But Jane Turner, the lead plaintiff in the case, said she believes the ruling will ultimately mean that she and other parents in failing school districts will not have to cover the cost of tuition to send their children to better schools.

“It is gratifiying that the high court in the state of Missouri said that my children and other children have a statutory right to attend Clayton schools with city schools’ loss of accreditation ,” she said.

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