The Jackson County Circuit Court issued a final judgment in the school transfer case that seems to have satisfied no one, not even the judge. In his opinion, Justice Brent Powell wrote, "This Court's ruling will undoubtedly be appealed" and "… could very likely be reversed and/or significantly altered." Thus, the case and the problem remain unresolved, and neither taxpayers nor students will benefit from the prolonged legal battle. The courts cannot play Solomon here; we need common sense solutions from legislators that will give students in failing districts more options.
At issue in the case is Missouri statute 167.131, which permits students in unaccredited districts to attend schools in a nearby accredited district. The court ruled the law violated the Hancock Amendment because it created an unfunded mandate for some of the schools that would receive students from the unaccredited Kansas City School District. The problem with the statute is essentially twofold. Receiving schools have no say in how many students they will accept into their district and the amount of money rendered to them is inadequate, or so they say.
The court's decision was based, in part, on the "per pupil cost" of maintaining grade level groupings, as calculated by the accredited school districts. Justice Powell called the estimates "very credible and reliable," but as an education policy analyst and former public school teacher, I would dispute that assertion. Because school districts spend whatever money they are given, we know how much schools spend, not how much it actually costs to educate students. Ironically, each school district reported it would cost more than they spent in operating expenses last year.
Nevertheless, the Kansas City School District should have enough money to cover the high cost that the districts report. Last year, Kansas City spent approximately $14,500 per pupil, more than almost all of the costs that the accredited districts reported. Part of the problem is Kansas City does not want to pay other school districts what they spend on their students.
The solution is simple. Allow money, both local and state, to follow the child to his or her school. The tuition paid to receiving districts should equal the lesser of the two districts' per pupil expenditure for the prior year. These figures can be readily calculated from prior year expense data. Furthermore, this system prevents any receiving district from extracting more money from an unaccredited district than would otherwise be spent on that student.
Money, however, is only part of the problem. Neighboring school districts do not want a mass exodus of Kansas City students into their school districts without any control over the number of students. That would force them to hire more teachers and construct additional buildings. Again, the solution is simple. Allow accredited school districts to determine how many available seats they have at each of their schools. Then, rather than forcing them to accept all students, let them hold lotteries to fill these slots.
Because schools have some fixed costs, including facilities and staff, it benefits them to not have empty seats. If a class has 19 students and could hold one more, the district would benefit from the additional dollars a transfer student brings, and crowding would not be an issue. For smart districts, the school transfer law could be a windfall. State and local elected officials must stop kicking the can down the road and face this problem. The solutions provided here do not completely fix the system, but they move Missouri in the right direction by allowing local schools to have local control and increasing educational opportunities for students who desperately need them.
James V. Shuls is the education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.