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Three keys to the latest legal fight over Missouri's school transfer law

Normandy N
File Stephanie Zimmerman | St. Louis Public Radio

The long-running legal fight over the Missouri law that allows students in under-performing districts to attend school elsewhere heads back to court on Tuesday.

A three-judge panel of the Missouri Court of Appeals will review how the Missouri State Board of Education handled a classification gray area: How do you accredit a brand new legal entity? And did the state board have the authority to do what it did?

Key Players

Janine Massey -  the mother of a student, Chase, who lives in the boundaries of the Normandy Schools Collaborative. She is the named plaintiff in a case that includes hundreds of other parents like her.

The Normandy Schools Collaborative -- the legal entity that replaced the Normandy School District starting with the 2014-2015 school year. The state plays a large role in funding and supervising the operations of the Collaborative.

The receiving districts -- Three school districts (Pattonville, Ritenour and Francis Howell) that refused to accept students from the Normandy Schools Collaborative after the state board of education changed its accreditation status in 2014.

The Missouri State Board of Education -- an appointed body tasked with, among other things, classifying schools based on their academic performance. That's usually done by evaluating past academic performance data with current information.

Key Dates

Sept. 8, 2012 -- The Missouri State Board of Education, citing years of academic struggles, votes to strip the accreditation of the Normandy School District. The decision starts the clock on a three-year timeframe to turn the district around or face state takeover. 

June 12, 2013 -- The Missouri Supreme Court rules that a state law allowing students from unaccredited districts to attend higher-performing schools, and requiring the under-performing districts to cover the cost, is constitutional.

2013-2014 school year -- Hundreds of students from the Normandy schools take advantage of the law and transfer to higher-performing districts. Normandy agrees to cover transportation costs to Francis Howell schools, in St. Charles County.

May 20, 2014 -- Citing a lack of academic progress, the state board of education votes to dissolve the Normandy School District and replace it with a brand new legal entity, the Normandy Schools Collaborative, for the 2014-2015 school year. Technically speaking, the new entity has no past academic performance data to evaluate for accreditation purposes.

June 16, 2014 -- The state board classifies the Normandy Schools Collaborative "accredited as a state oversight district." Instantly, hundreds of students lose the ability to transfer to better schools -- the transfer law only applies to unaccredited districts.

June 26, 2014 -- The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education releases policy guidelines that say students can continue to transfer if receiving districts accept them, but the districts cannot be forced to do so because of the new status. The Pattonville, Ritenour and Francis Howell districts refuse to accept Normandy Schools Collaborative students.

July 14, 2014 -- Janine Massey and other parents whose children had attended different schools in 2013-2014 sue to overturn the "accredited as a state oversight district" designation and to force receiving districts to accept their students. All plaintiff students were allowed to transfer.

August 15, 2014 -- Judge Michael Burton rules that the new status does not mean the Normandy Schools Collaborative actually met the definition of accredited and that the state board lacked the authority to develop that new classification.

March 10, 2015 -- The state board reverses itself and restores Normandy's unaccredited classification. 

Key Arguments

"The State of Missouri and the other Appellants in this case would have the Court believe that the State Board of Education can take the worst-performing school district in the state ... and with the stroke of a pen deem the district 'accredited,' under the State Board's claimed ability to waive administrative rules ..." an attorney for Massey and the other parents writes in his brief.

The document advances five main points:

  1. The Normandy School District/Normandy Schools Collaborative were never "accredited" within the meaning of the student transfer law. At best, the attorneys argue, the state board created a new status called "state oversight district. This is not the same as 'accredited.'"
  2. The state Board of Education did not do what's legally required to re-accredit a district. "Section 162.081 lays out a precise road map to full accreditation, which takes time to traverse. ... Under the statute, 'the district' retains the unaccredited status from the lapsed district, simply under a new governing structure."
  3. The state Board of Education didn't follow the required rule-making procedures, which are required when setting general standards.
  4. The state Board of Education acted outside of its authority when it reclassified the Normandy School Collaborative. The state law governing accreditation lists only four classifications -- accredited with distinction, accredited, provisionally accredited and unaccredited.
  5. The fact that the school board reversed itself and reclassified the Normandy Schools Collaborative does not mean the board will not try to re-accredit the Collaborative without following procedure. Therefore, the case should be decided on the merits.

Though they submitted separate briefs, the state, the receiving districts, and the Normandy Schools Collaborative all made similar arguments:

  1. State law gives the Board of Education broad authority to waive its own rules, even when it comes to classifying districts, and the board does not need to create a new rule when a classification is only going to apply to one district. "Though an accreditation system is required by statute, all of the specifics of that statute are a product of the State Board's rulemaking."
  2. The Board of Education complied to the best of its abilities with 162.081, which contrary to the arguments of the Normandy Schools Collaborative parents, only governs the reorganization process.
  3. Because there is no reason to assume that the State Board will ever again use the "accreditation as a state oversight district" designation, there is no reason for the court to rule on what it means.

Judges Robert Dowd, Mary Hoff and Roy Richter will hear the case for the Missouri Court of Appeals.
Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.