WHAT OTHERS SAY: Somebody needed to make school transfer guidelines

Wednesday, June 26, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:47 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, June 26, 2013

At some point in next year's session of the Missouri legislature, the House will hold a hearing in which lawmakers, most of whom will be Republicans professing to be aghast, will accuse Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro of daring to legislate from the executive branch. Count on it.

The legislators won't necessarily be wrong. Ms. Nicastro and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education did sort of take the making of law into their own hands when they issued guidelines to school districts in St. Louis and Kansas City about how to handle an expected rush of school transfers.

This should have been the legislature's job. But the legislature didn't get it done. Somebody had to.

So last week, the education department released a list of nine recommendations to guide school districts that must respond to last week's Missouri Supreme Court ruling in a school-transfer case. The unanimous court affirmed — for the second time — the constitutionality of a state law that allows students from an unaccredited school district to transfer to another district in their same or an adjoining county.

The case, known as Breitenfeld v. Clayton, has been making its way through the courts since 2007. School districts have been begging the legislature since the lawsuit was filed to provide some clarity.

The legislature, unable to get beyond political infighting, has done nothing to help. In fact, by underfunding the formula that provides needed revenue for school districts, the legislature has made things worse. Now, school officials in the Normandy, Riverview Gardens and Kansas City school districts are faced with the reality of having to pay tuition for their students who will leave for neighboring school districts.

The court was right to rule the way it did. Generations of schoolchildren have been hung out to dry in poorly performing schools. You can argue about whose fault this is; parents, teachers, administrators, local and state politicians and civic communities all bear some blame.

But you can't argue about this: It's time to do something about it.

We commend the school districts in the St. Louis region for recognizing that it's time to implement the law and deal with the consequences rather than just fret about them.

But Ms. Nicastro and her staff were absolutely right to issue some level-headed guidance to school districts. The department's guidelines will allow administrators to deal with sticky transportation and class-size issues. They now have some flexibility and a level of local control in placing children into specific school buildings.

In fact, we suggested a year ago that Ms. Nicastro do exactly what she did. It took a year and a second court ruling, and another year of legislative inaction for the guidance to come down. So be it.

So when that inevitable hearing is held next year, Ms. Nicastro can tell lawmakers: "Do your jobs." She probably won't; she's too adept for that. But she would have every right.

The reality is that lawmakers have been spending way too much time debating untested reform ideas that in some cases would hurt the public schools. They've ignored the nitty-gritty problems that governing requires. They have underfunded schools. They passed the transfer law back in 2000, but have since failed to develop orderly policies to implement that law.

The guidelines issued by Ms. Nicastro's deparment are reasonable and proper. It's called governing. Ms. Nicastro need apologize for nothing. Until legislators do the jobs they were elected to do, Missouri needs her to manage its school affairs the best way she can.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch via The Associated Press. Reprinted with permission.

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