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Judge rules Mo. school transfer law unconstitutional

(via Flickr/evmaiden)

Updated at 5:30 pm with comments from lawmakers.

Updated at 4:45 with statement from Missouri Department of Education and to correct grammar mistake.

Updated at 1:55 with comments from attorney, Clayton School District.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

A St. Louis County judge has ruled that a Missouri law allowing students to transfer from unaccredited districts to neighboring accredited ones for free is unconstitutional.

The ruling today from Judge David Vincent is the latest in a long legal battle originally known as Turner vs. Clayton. The case began in 2007 - the year the St. Louis Public Schools were declared unaccredited - when a group of city parents sought to have the SLPS pay for their children to attend the Clayton School District. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that the law's "unambiguous mandatory language requires unaccredited school districts to pay the tuition of its students who choose to attend an accredited school in an adjoining district." But in 2011,  the Clayton schools, as well as the SLPS, were allowed to challenge the constitutionality of the law.

Vincent's ruling agreed with Clayton and the St. Louis Public Schools that the transfer law was an unfunded mandate in violation of the state's Hancock Amendment, because the state's transfer law changed after 1980, when the amendment was approved. Vincent also ruled that "substantial evidence" indicated that complying with the transfer law would "overwhelm area school resources to the extent of adversely affecting local districts."

"We could not be more pleased with the way that Judge Vincent has ruled on this case," said Clayton School District spokesman Chris Tennill. "I'm not sure how we would have prepared for a ruling against us in this case. You can't really prepare for an unknown number of students and also do it in a way that's going to let you educate children the way that they deserve to be taught."

Republican state senator Jane Cunningham of Chesterfield, who sits on the chamber's education committee, didn't buy the "impossibility" defense.

"The unaccredited district never had to pay more than what their per-pupil expenditure is," she said. "The couny districts could receive all the money that they need to educate the pupil."

In the ruling, Judge Vincent pointed to the capital investments county schools would have to make to build infrastructure for students from unaccredited districts.

Tennill says the case does not absolve the district, or the state, of working to find a solution to unaccredited school districts. But education reform reform proposals have had trouble becoming more than just proposals.

Cunningham says she and other lawmakers had not yet decided whether to press forward with a Turner fix, or wait for the state Supreme Court to rule again. Republican Scott Dieckhaus, a state representative from Washington Mo., and the chair of the House education committee did not comment on the ruling.

Elkin Kistner, an attorney for plaintiff Gina Breitenfeld, said quality education was at the core of the original suit. Today's ruling, he says, creates a void in the state's educational system.

"Right now, you have a constitutional guarantee of a free public education, and I think it's implicit that that guarantee means that it has to be something other than a shoddy public education," he said.

Both Kistner and Tennill expected the case to be appealed.

State education commissioner Chris Nicastro issued the following statement on the ruling:

“We believe the Breitenfeld, et al. v. School District of Clayton case is an important issue that needs to be resolved for the children and schools affected by the ruling, and we will continue to monitor this case. We are in support of any effort that ensures quality education for children.”

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.
Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.