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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

School Transfer Law Ruled Unconstitutional

Posted By on Wed, May 2, 2012 at 8:00 AM

Still here, still lousy, and, yes, if you live within the attendance district, you still have to go.
  • Still here, still lousy, and, yes, if you live within the attendance district, you still have to go.

The law, when it was first enacted, seemed pretty unassuming: If you were a student in an unaccredited school district, you (and your parents) had the right to transfer to an accredited school, and your home district would pay for your transportation and tuition. It was intended mainly for kids in rural areas who lived in school districts without high schools.

But then in 2007, St. Louis public schools lost their accreditation. In other words, they failed to meet the basic educational standards set up by the state legislature. In further words, they were shitty. A few enterprising parents living within the St. Louis public school district, including Jane Turner and Gina Breitenfeld, got wind of the transfer law and decided to send their kids to school in Clayton.

In 2010, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that Turner and Breitenfeld could continue to send their kids to the Clayton schools and told the St. Louis County court to figure it out how the law should be enforced should other parents want to take advantage of it.

Yesterday the court came through with a ruling: The parents may have been acting within the law, but the law is unconstitutional. Back to the lousy St. Louis Public Schools with you!

One of the key factors in Judge David Vincent's ruling appears to be a 2011 study by E. Terrance Jones, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, which determined that 15,740 students living in St. Louis City would transfer to suburban districts if they could. Of those, 8,318 attended St. Louis public schools; the rest went to private, parochial or charter schools or were part of the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation program, which promotes desegregation. Currently, 23,000 students attend St. Louis public schools.

In addition to drastically reducing the student population, the potential mass transfers would be a big kick in the wallet to the St. Louis Public Schools. Superintendent Kelvin Adams testified that, should everybody who wanted to take advantage of the law be able to, his district would have to shell out $223,790,964.16 per year in tuition. Add in transportation costs, and the St. Louis public school district would be left with $26 million in its budget to educate 15,000 students.

The suburban schools weren't thrilled with this potential state of affairs, either: Where the hell were they going to put all those extra kids?

And, indeed, this was part of Vincent's reasoning in his final judgment, along with some legal wrangling about how the transfer law was enacted after the passage of the Hancock Amendment to the state constitution in 1980, which was supposed to limit government spending. Therefore, unconstitutional!

The judgment pleases representatives of both the St. Louis and Clayton school districts. "I'm not sure how we would have prepared for a ruling against us in this case," Chris Tennill, a spokesman for the Clayton school district, told St. Louis Public Radio. "You can't really prepare for an unknown number of students and also do it in a way that's going to let you educate children the way that they deserve to be taught."

The only people displeased are the parents who didn't want to have to send their kids to lousy schools. "Right now, you have a constitutional guarantee of a free public education, and I think it's implicit that that guarantee means that it has to be something other than a shoddy public education," said Elkin Kistner, a lawyer representing Gina Breitenfeld, the lone plaintiff from 2007 who is still pursuing the case.

Good news, though: The St. Louis schools will be getting their accreditation back any year now! Who wants to make a bet on whether it will happen before the Breitenfeld case gets through the appeals process, or if either of these things will happen before the Breitenfeld kids graduate from high school?

Read Judge Vincent's full ruling after the jump.

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