The Missouri Supreme Court has once again rejected legal arguments against a state statute that could allow thousands of students to leave failing school districts for better schools.
In a ruling handed down Tuesday, the high court said a lower court decision incorrectly determined that the statute would be impossible to enforce and violated aspects of the Missouri Constitution.
The unanimous decision sends just one part of the case back to St. Louis County Circuit Court — to determine the amount St. Louis Public Schools will be billed for back tuition payments for two students in the Clayton School District.
Tuesday’s ruling appears to deny school districts their primary legal arguments for turning away students from unaccredited districts, which enroll more than 7,000 students in the St. Louis area alone.
The case — which is commonly known as Turner vs. Clayton, but later took on the name Breitenfeld vs. Clayton — involves two children living in St. Louis who were attending Clayton schools while the city school system was unaccredited. But it has sweeping implications for districts across Missouri.
It centers on a statute that allows students in unaccredited school districts to transfer to superior schools at no expense to their families. The failing district must pay for the children’s education and transportation.
Because St. Louis Public Schools received provisional accreditation last fall, the law currently applies to students living in Missouri’s three unaccredited school systems: Normandy, Riverview Gardens and Kansas City.
School officials across the region spent much of Tuesday afternoon trying to digest the 37-page ruling. They expressed uncertainty as to whether its scope was limited to Gina Breitenfeld’s two children, or included thousands of children in unaccredited school districts.
In recent years, hundreds of parents have sought such transfers but have been denied enrollment pending the outcome of this case. It’s unclear whether Tuesday’s decision changes anything for the immediate future.
Elkin Kistner, Breitenfeld’s attorney, predicted parents will want to assert their rights. “If I were a parent I would say, ‘You’d better put my kid in your school. Now.’”
Chris Tennill, spokesman for Clayton schools, said the ruling fails to resolve the transfer issue in a way that protects all students.
“While we have had time to briefly review the court’s opinion, we will continue to meet with our attorneys over the next few days to evaluate our options and provide updates once we have determined our next steps,” he wrote in an email.
The statute has given parents in unaccredited districts hope of sending their children to better schools, while sparking anxiety among suburban superintendents who feared having to accommodate an immediate influx of children.
School district attorneys had argued that such an influx could have bankrupted St. Louis Public Schools by burdening the district with millions of dollars in tuition payments, In May 2012, St. Louis County Judge David Lee Vincent III alleviated school districts’ fears by ruling in favor of Clayton and St. Louis school officials.
But the Missouri Supreme Court held that school districts have failed to establish that they will be saddled with an “impossible” burden by accepting transfer students under the statute. The court also reversed Vincent’s ruling that the statute posed a violation to the so-called Hancock Amendment of the Missouri Constitution by creating an unfunded mandate.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster’s office had argued that no Hancock violation existed, and that districts needed to comply with the statute.
“We are pleased that our position has prevailed,” Koster said in a statement. “This clearly is a difficult situation, but our guiding principle has always been putting kids first.”
This is the second time the state’s high court has reversed Vincent on this matter. In 2010, after Vincent ruled in favor of the school districts, a divided Supreme Court sent the case back to him for trial.
On Tuesday afternoon, superintendents and school officials across the region were trying to figure out whether districts throughout St. Louis County would need to begin enrolling students who want to transfer from Normandy and Riverview.
Don Senti, executive director of Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis, said he was consulting with lawyers for answers.
“We just don’t know yet,” he said. “We’re trying to let it sink in.”