UPDATE: Missouri court upholds student transfer law in Kansas City case

Tuesday, December 10, 2013 | 8:45 p.m. CST; updated 8:56 p.m. CST, Tuesday, December 10, 2013

*This story has been updated with background and comments from officials.

JEFFERSON CITY — For the second time this year, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a state law requiring unaccredited schools to pay for students to attend class elsewhere.

The court's unanimous decision Tuesday applied to the Kansas City School District and its suburban neighbors. A similar ruling earlier this year dealt with St. Louis area schools, and since then, a couple thousand students have exited the struggling Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts.

At issue is a 1993 Missouri law requiring unaccredited school districts to cover costs for students to attend a nearby accredited school. Kansas City's schools have been unaccredited since 2012, but student transfers have been on hold because of the legal challenge.

The Supreme Court reaffirmed its June decision upholding the transfer law and concluding it does not impose an unfunded mandate. The earlier case focused on a parent who wanted the then-unaccredited St. Louis Public School District to pay for her two children to attend schools in neighboring Clayton. St. Louis gained provisional accreditation in October 2012.

The transfer law "does not mandate a new or increased level of activity but merely reallocates responsibilities among school districts," Supreme Court Judge Laura Denvir Stith wrote in Tuesday's decision.

The legal challenge from the Kansas City area case asserted that the law mandates districts perform a new or increased level of activity by educating transfer students. An attorney did not immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment.

Kansas City has about 15,000 students in kindergarten through high school and 1,000 in preschool. Superintendent R. Stephen Green has said potential student transfers could cost the district $60 million to $150 million out of a $268 million budget. He said he does not anticipate transfers before the 2014-2015 school year.

Green said inaction by state education officials on his district's attempt to upgrade its accreditation status has been devastating and threatens accomplishments students have made.

"They deserve a healthy, stable and caring school within their neighborhood," Green said. "This ruling, along with an inadequate transfer law, has the potential to rip that away from thousands of urban students."

Kansas City this year sought an upgrade to provisional accreditation, which would have made it no longer subject to the transfer law. The district argued its finances were stable and it had seen improvement on school performance reports.

Kansas City nearly scored in the provisionally accredited range last year and hit the mark in the most recent school performance report, though it got a boost because the new system gives credit for improvements. Most students are not hitting proficiency goals in core subjects.

The State Board of Education turned back the request in October. The Missouri School Boards' Association and several neighboring school districts supported Kansas City's request.

Kate Casas, state director for the Children's Education Council of Missouri, said the court has made clear "children in this state have a right to go to a high-quality school."

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said Tuesday it will do whatever it can to help the Kansas City area's school districts comply with the transfer law.

In the St. Louis area, there has been acrimony and financial challenges as students were allowed to transfer out of the Riverview Gardens and Normandy school systems. State education officials in September recommended $6.8 million of aid for Normandy, which has been projected to run out of money in March. The request would require approval from the governor and legislature.

Figures reported at the start of the academic year indicate 1,451 students transferred from Riverview Gardens and 1,189 left Normandy.

Several Missouri lawmakers have proposed legislation dealing with the transfer law for their legislative session starting in January.

Senate Education Committee Chairman David Pearce said the issue had everyone's attention and that the court's ruling magnifies the situation.

"It's very important for us to come up with some solutions on the transfer law," said Pearce, R-Warrensburg. "That being said, I don't feel it was a surprise to anyone how the Supreme Court ruled. I think that keeps it very consistent with some past rulings."

Associated Press writer Bill Draper contributed to this report from Kansas City.

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