KANSAS CITY — Missouri lawmakers are trying to prevent an influx of students transferring out of failing schools after the state Supreme Court partially sided with a group of St. Louis parents suing to force unaccredited districts to pick up the tab to send students to accredited schools.
Critics say the lawsuit could overcrowd suburban classrooms and bankrupt the struggling school systems in St. Louis and nearby Riverview Gardens, the state's two unaccredited districts. About 72,000 school-age youths live in those districts, including about 28,000 now attending private or parochial schools.
Ten other districts, including Kansas City, are provisionally accredited, which means the lawsuit could potentially affect them if they become unaccredited.
"The implications are tremendous not only just for those living in the St. Louis district but those receiving districts," said Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
But parents say they need an alternative to bad schools or paying for good ones.
"Countless families leave their residence in the city of St. Louis once their children become school age because the school system is not acceptable," said Jane Turner, a plaintiff who moved from the suburbs to St. Louis when she remarried because her husband's job required him to live in the city.
"With this change, families wouldn't have to leave. Our neighborhoods would be more stable. And St. Louis would become once again be a more attractive place to stay and raise a family," she said.
Turner was among parents paying to transfer their children to the suburban Clayton district when the St. Louis district lost its accreditation in 2007 following years of low test scores and other problems. When Clayton refused to send Turner's tuition bill to St. Louis, she and three other parents sued.
They cited a Missouri law that states unaccredited schools "shall pay the tuition of and provide transportation ... for each pupil resident therein who attends an accredited school in another district of the same or adjoining county." The statute also states that "each pupil shall be free to attend the public school of his or her choice."
The Missouri Supreme Court agreed last summer that students living in unaccredited districts are owed free transfers and that accredited schools must take the students. But the court said the parents weren't owed reimbursement for the tuition they'd already paid because they had signed tuition agreements. Clayton currently charges transfer families $10,280 annually per student in kindergarten through fifth grade and $15,450 for students in sixth through 12th grade.
The court sent the case back to a local court to work out the details.
While the litigation continues, accredited districts are still limiting admission to students from the two unaccredited districts and legislators are working on what they call a "Turner fix." Legislative proposals include excluding students from transferring if they hadn't previously been attending district schools, addressing fears that students from private and parochial schools also would transfer.
Elkin L. Kistner, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said parents are simply asking that the law be enforced. Kistner said school districts should have gone to lawmakers years ago if they wanted the law changed.
"They are holding hands and singing in unison a song of falsity, and everyone on the government's side complains about the parade of horribles," Kistner said. "They are preventing any traction from occurring as far as the Supreme Court ruling."
Demand for transfers promises to be high.
More than 6,000 students from St. Louis are attending suburban school districts and about 170 county students are attending magnet schools in the city through a voluntary transfer program that was the result of a school desegregation case. But only minority students qualify for suburban transfers and space is limited.
Usually, 3,000 city students apply, and this school year there were only slots for about 600 new transfer students, said David Glaser, CEO of the Voluntary Interdistrict Transfer Program.
If unlimited transfers are allowed, the education everyone receives could suffer, Glaser argued.
"There literally isn't space," he said. "What do you do? Take a class size of 20 and make it 40."
Plus, the suburban St. Louis districts said they suffered previously when they took in dozens of students from the now-defunct Wellston School District after it lost its accreditation in 2003.
By 2006, the state decided to take action as Wellston fell behind on tuition bills that were totaling about $1 million a year. The state created "interim accreditation" to spare the district the additional expense of future student transfers. Clayton and several of the other districts didn't get the money they were owed for the transfer students until June 2010, as the 500-student Wellston district shut down.
"Countywide, there were a lot of people who were really not happy with how the Wellston situation worked out," said Chris Tennill, a spokesman for the 2,500-student Clayton district.
Tennill said Clayton wants the issue settled and has filed a counterclaim seeking to force the plaintiff parents to pay this year's tuition — an effort designed to ensure the three remaining plaintiff parents don't drop out of the litigation as their legal expenses mount and their children graduate.
"One of the last things we really want to see happen is to lose all the plaintiffs in this lawsuit and not be able to litigate this and address the bigger issue of the impossibility of complying with the state decision," Tennill said.