Missouri lawmakers unlikely to take up St. Louis, Kansas City school transfers

Sunday, May 6, 2012 | 6:39 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — Missouri lawmakers said they're losing momentum when it comes to legislation on school transfers, particularly after a St. Louis judge declared an existing law unconstitutional this week.

St. Louis County Circuit Judge David Lee Vincent III ruled that a 1993 law requiring unaccredited districts to pick up the tab to send students to nearby accredited districts can't be enforced because it violates a part of the state constitution that prohibits unfunded mandates. His decision is likely to be appealed.

Several St. Louis families whose children were going to schools in Clayton sought to have the tuition bills sent to the St. Louis district after it lost its state accreditation in 2007. Other lawsuits also have been filed over the school transfer law.

The law also has received attention since the Missouri State Board of Education decided to close six academically and fiscally troubled charter schools in St. Louis. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's St. Louis branch has suggested students from those schools should be allowed to transfer to accredited neighboring districts.

Suburban districts near three unaccredited school systems in Kansas City and St. Louis area have kept out students seeking to use the law to transfer law while the issue is fought in court.

Missouri lawmakers had started their annual legislative session hoping to make significant changes to deal with that issue, problems with the state school funding formula and other education-related matters.

But time is running short before lawmakers' constitutionally required adjournment May 18, and House Minority Leader Mike Talboy said the ruling from St. Louis County could just about end a discussion about school transfers that he said already had "slowed down organically."

"Obviously when you have an issue that's probably going to end up in front of the Supreme Court, the legislative urgency kind of dies down, and I think especially when you're talking about two weeks left in session, you're not going to see a whole lot of that," said Talboy, D-Kansas City.

House Speaker Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, said Republican leaders would continue to push for incremental changes, such as expanding charter schools and prohibiting seniority from being a factor in considering what teachers to keep when layoffs are necessary. But when it comes to broad changes, he said, the judge's decision "takes some of the winds out of the sails."

Chris Tennill, a spokesman for the Clayton district, said the district is willing to take students from St. Louis Public Schools and has done so for years through a separate, voluntary transfer program that allows districts to control the flow of students — something the 1993 transfer law doesn't. He said the real issue isn't transfers but the quality of education in the unaccredited districts.

"If everyone is as worried about the students in unaccredited school districts as they claim to be, then let's tackle this issue head on and all by itself and stop using unpopular school reform as a boat anchor to keep this issue from making any progress," he said.

During a three-day court hearing in March in the case, a political science and public administration professor concluded from a survey of residents and other data that roughly 15,700 students in St. Louis could seek a transfer under the 1993 law. Of those students, more than 3,500 were expected to seek enrollment in Clayton, where officials say about 2,500 children attend classes.

Clayton officials say they would need several years for planning and construction to deal with such an influx.

"Bringing students into the accredited school districts with no parameters, no anything could be really harmful," said David Kuschel, assistant executive director of the Cooperating School Districts of St. Louis.

He hoped Vincent's ruling would remove the pressure to act quickly.

"Now, maybe there is more time to find a solution," Kuschel said. "Maybe it's an opportunity to find a way that if this is going to happen, we can find a way to make it work for everyone."

Jim Hinson, Independence schools superintendent, said he was watching the Clayton case closely and thought it didn't bode well for possible legislative fixes. His is among several suburban districts suing over Kansas City's policy for handling transfers. A bench trial is set for June 25.

"From what we're hearing the legislature feels that 'Well, the courts are going to deal with this, so we no longer need to deal with it,'" Hinson said. "I think it is a little flawed. My question is 'What remains the answer for students who remain in unaccredited districts?' This ruling does not address the educational issues or lack thereof going on in unaccredited school districts, and I think that's the issue that's really at stake."

Blank reported from Jefferson City.

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