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Missouri School Transfer Law Ruled Unconstitutional

A 1993 state law requiring unaccredited Missouri school districts to pay the tuition and transportation costs for resident students who leave for a neighboring accredited district is unconstitutional, a Missouri circuit court judge ruled Tuesday.

The ruling affects students in the 23,600-student St. Louis district, which lost its state accreditation in 2007. When that happened, a group of St. Louis parents that had been paying tuition for their children to attend the neighboring 2,500-student Clayton district turned to their home district to pick up tuition and transportation costs. I wrote about the case, called Turner v. School District of Clayton, in a November article about Kansas City, another Missouri district that has lost state accreditation.

The case has been tangled up in the legal system for five years. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled 4-to-3 that the law was constitutional, meaning that St. Louis would have to pay tuition costs for students who wanted to leave the district. However, that decision was not the final word. The state Supreme Court remanded the case back to the state court to work out implementation issues.

Once back in state court, the defendants offered a new argument that the law violated the state's "Hancock Amendment," which was passed in 1980 and forbids the state from passing along costs of "new or expanded" activities without providing state funds for them. Judge David Lee Vincent III heard testimony from the superintendents of St. Louis and Clayton that the law would inflict financial hardships on both districts. The attorneys representing the parents said that such claims were exaggerated, but in the judge's ruling (provided by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch)the judge said that the transfer policy would create new burdens for taxpayers both in St. Louis and in the districts that receive its students.

Though this case only involves St. Louis area-students, it clearly has repercussions for Kansas City, which now educates about 16,690 students. Although some students have applied to leave the district since the beginning of this year, said district spokesman Andre Riley, none have left yet as school leaders waited to see the outcome of this court case. (Potential receiving districts have created waiting lists, saying they won't take Kansas City students because Kansas City has not agreed to pay full tuition.)

The Kansas City district has released a statement saying that the ruling recognized the financial hardship that would be caused by the transfer policy, and that district stability is "paramount."

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