December 10, 2013

Missouri Supreme Court upholds student transfer law in KC area case

Now the pressure falls back on lawmakers and policymakers to either fix or eliminate the law, which would compel Kansas City Public Schools to pay tuition and transportation costs for students who choose to depart to neighboring districts in the 2014-2015 school year.

The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday denied area school districts an escape from a much-feared state law that allows students to transfer out of unaccredited school districts.

Although school administrators and legislators throughout the state agree the law is flawed, it is not unconstitutional, the high court ruled.

Now the pressure falls back on lawmakers and policymakers to either fix or eliminate the law, which would compel Kansas City Public Schools to pay tuition and transportation costs for students who choose to depart to neighboring districts in the 2014-2015 school year.

Kansas City, the only unaccredited district in the area, and neighboring districts have witnessed the severe financial and emotional strain playing out in the St. Louis area, where districts began implementing the law in August.

Unaccredited districts there are on the path to bankruptcy, the state has reported.

Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green issued a plea for relief — either from legislators or the Missouri education department — for Kansas City’s communities.

“They deserve a healthy, stable and caring school in their neighborhood,” Green said. “This ruling, along with an inadequate transfer law, has the potential to rip that away from thousands of urban students.”

Kansas City area school districts had held off carrying out the law while waiting to hear the court ruling on the challenge brought by the Blue Springs, Independence, Lee’s Summit, North Kansas City and Raytown districts.

The high court reaffirmed a ruling it made in June that upheld the law in a case involving St. Louis area districts. The high court overturned a St. Louis County Circuit Court decision from 2012 that had ruled that the law created an unconstitutional, unfunded mandate under the Hancock Amendment.

In affirming the transfer law in the St. Louis case, the Supreme Court determined the law did not create an unfunded mandate and should be enforced. The court reasoned that the law did not require public schools to teach more students or provide new services. Districts would be redistributing students and services.

The same reasoning held in the Kansas City case.

“This … is not a violation of the Hancock Amendment any more than would be the obligation to educate new students moving into a district each year,” the court said.

Kansas City area school leaders had held out faint hope that the court, upon seeing what happened in St. Louis after the June ruling, might change its course.

For the two unaccredited districts in the St. Louis area — Normandy and Riverview Gardens — some 2,500 students out of their combined enrollment of 10,600 sought transfers.

The unaccredited districts must pay the tuition costs for all of them and transportation for most of them. The costs are proving to be a hardship. Normandy determined in October that it will close an elementary school and lay off 100 staffers for the second semester, beginning in January.

“The challenge with the current law,” said Center School District Superintendent Bob Bartman, “is that it puts (unaccredited) districts in a status of purgatory where they bleed to death.”

Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro has asked the state legislature to appropriate $6.8 million to keep Normandy from going bankrupt.

It is unknown how many Kansas City area students might seek a transfer. A survey by The Star earlier this year found that districts were reporting few if any inquiries. The districts involved in the lawsuit were not recording any transfer requests while the case was pending.

More than 10,000 Kansas City students are already enrolled in public charter schools, a public school option that is not available to families in Normandy and Riverview Gardens.

Kansas City Public Schools’ K-12 enrollment has been eroding over the years and now stands at 14,118. The law would allow Kansas City students to transfer to a school in any district in Jackson County or adjoining Missouri counties — Cass, Clay, Johnson, Lafayette and Ray — but not Platte County, which does not adjoin Jackson County.

The law is spare in its language, placing almost no restrictions on the transfer process. But the state has written detailed guidelines, and most districts have written similar policies to set some limits.

For instance, transfers generally will be done before the start of a school year. The unaccredited district can designate a district to which it will transport students. Families transferring to other districts would have to provide their own transportation.

But even following the guidelines, the St. Louis area districts are having problems.

Kansas City area superintendents have been pushing in several directions, hoping to find a way out from under the law.

Several joined with the Missouri Association of School Administrators in developing a district accountability plan that eliminates the status of “unaccredited.” Districts that persist in poor performance would instead be labeled “academically stressed” and draw heavy interventions. Schools in persistently failing districts could be taken over by neighboring districts, but the schools and their students could remain in their community.

Another potential escape could come if the Missouri school board were to give Kansas City Public Schools provisional accreditation — a plea that has been made by Kansas City and joined by most of the neighboring districts.

The district has improved over the past two years, even scoring in the provisional accreditation range in its August state report card.

The state board denied the request, noting that the district’s improved score rested heavily on credit for progress and that Kansas City needs to sustain its growth for at least another year.

The uncertainty has only made Kansas City’s recovery harder, Green said.

“The inaction to date has already been devastating and threatens every accomplishment made by our students,” he said.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James called on lawmakers to take swift action.

“Every student deserves a quality school in their neighborhood,” he said in a written statement.

History shows, however, that a legislative remedy is not assured.

Many lawmakers over the past few years have attempted to change or eliminate the transfer law. Every time a bill made its way through the legislative session, competing interests in education reform tried to attach to the bills, running them aground.

At least six bills already have been filed in advance of the January legislative session that aim to change the law, said Sen. David Pearce, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest that we move quickly,” he said.

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