In 1812, the writers of Missouri’s territorial charter, a document that would later guide statehood, wrote this:
“Knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of public education shall be encouraged and provided for.”
It is a concept that has served Missouri well and been maintained as a bedrock principle.
On Tuesday, a unanimous Missouri Supreme Court reaffirmed the state’s commitment to the free education of all of its children.
Now it is time for the school districts of the state to answer that call.
Children can choose a better school
In Breitenfeld v. Clayton, the court ruled that children who have the misfortune of living in school districts that have failed to meet state standards have the right to attend an accredited school district in the same or an adjoining county.
Further, the court ruled that when lawmakers in 2000 said that the adjoining school district must accept the children, and that the unaccredited school district must pay the child’s costs — including transportation — the legislature meant what it plainly said.
The court, as it did in 2010 in the precursor to the same case (then called Turner v. Clayton), ruled that the law is constitutional.
The challenge now is how to bring the case to life.
The case, filed in 2007 by four city of St. Louis residents who chose to send their children to Clayton schools, has been delayed by legal strategies for so long that its original namesake, Jane Turner, is no longer involved. Only Gina Breitenfeld’s children are still in school. The St. Louis Public Schools have since regained provisional accreditation, meaning the children in that district are not likely covered anymore by the ruling.
The Supreme Court has been unambiguous. And it’s worth noting that the author of the unanimous Breitenfeld ruling was one of the dissenters in the 4-3 Turner case. Judge Mary Russell dissents no more.
Time to apply the law
Unfortunately, we fear school districts worried about money will delay enforcing the law again. They’ve already offered up numerous excuses, coming up with new ones every time the court knocks one of them down.
What’s next, the dog ate their legal briefs?
Here’s how the Clayton School District responded to Tuesday’s ruling:
“We will continue to meet with our attorneys over the next few days to evaluate our options,” said Clayton spokesman Chris Tennill.
The time for attorneys is over. The time for legal battles is done.
Twice now the state’s highest court has said that children in school districts that fail to meet state standards must have the opportunity to attend quality schools.
That is the law. It should be enforced immediately.
Children must get education they deserve
The law says unaccredited districts must pay for their students to get the education they deserve. The law says accredited districts must accept those students trying to fulfill the promise of the state’s founders.
The legislature could ease whatever pain is to come by actually fully funding the Foundation Formula. Lawmakers could reduce concerns about uneven school district funding, but they haven’t found the will to compromise. The local school districts could be creative by working with their neighbors across arbitrary boundaries to improve the education of an entire region. But that hasn’t happened either.
The time has come for some brave superintendents and school boards to do the right thing: Open your doors to whoever comes knocking. Stop worrying about the “impossible” and focus on the possible. Focus on the now.
Send the attorneys home for the summer.
The Missouri Supreme Court is standing up for children.
It’s time for school districts to do the same thing.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.