The Missouri Supreme Court recently ruled on the constitutionality of a state statute that allows students to transfer out of unaccredited districts to bordering districts that are accredited. See Breitenfeld v. Sch. Dist. of Clayton, No. SC92653 (Mo. June 11, 2013). The outcome of this case will have far-reaching impacts for the employees and students of both the unaccredited districts and the bordering accredited districts.
Hit the jump for all the “you don’t have to go home but you can stay here” details…
At issue in Breitenfeld was the interaction of the “Unaccredited District Tuition Statute” (Mo. Rev. Stat. 167.131 for those playing along at home) and the “Hancock Amendment” to the Missouri Constitution (Art. X, §§ 16-22). According to the Tuition Statute, any district that loses accreditation is required to pay the tuition and provide transportation for any resident student who decides to attend an accredited district in the same or an adjoining county. After the St. Louis Public School (SLPS) system lost accreditation in 2007, a group of parents sought to have their children transferred into the Clayton School District. Both the Clayton School District and SLPS, joined by a group of taxpayers from Clayton and a taxpayer from SLPS, argued that the Tuition Statute was unenforceable because it violated the “Hancock Amendment” and it’s implementation would be “impossible.”
The “Hancock Amendment” was originally passed in 1980 to act as an attempt to limit the state government’s ability to increase taxes beyond what they were on the date the Amendment was passed. The specific aspect of the Amendment in question in Breitenfeld was a prohibition on the State creating “new or expanded activities” for counties or other governmental bodies without providing full financing. This provision was designed to keep the state from requiring these lesser bodies to raise taxes in order to pay for state required activities, these are also referred to as “unfunded mandates.”
In analyzing the arguments of the parties, the court first considered whether the educational requirements of the Tuition Statute were “new” or “increased.” Instead of looking at the raw number of students who might transfer, the Court considered whether the quality or nature of the educational requirements had changed. The Court noted that school districts have been required to provide eligible students a free public education since at least 1963 (with historical precedents that go all the way back to the founding of the Missouri Territory). Therefore, the Court held that there was no new activity being required of the districts (since they already provide a free public education), just a change in the number of times they had to provide that activity.
Additionally, the Court held that the Hancock Amendment is not intended to apply on a county by county (or district by district) basis. So long as the State does not create new burdens, it could shift burdens among counties without running afoul of the Amendment.
Next the Court addressed whether the requirement of providing transportation ran afoul of the Hancock Amendment. Here, the Court agreed with the Districts that providing transportation for students to other districts would be a “new” activity required of the Districts. However, the court noted that while the activity was “new” there was not sufficient information to tell whether or not it was “unfunded.” The Court noted that a detailed analysis of student transportation needs would have to be done to determine whether the State already provided sufficient funds. Because that information had not been presented, the Court found that there was no Hancock Amendment violation.
The Breitenfeld decision guarantees that the “Unaccredited District Tuition Statute” will continue to be the law in Missouri. Unfortunately, the Court’s slight of hand regarding type of activity v. quantity of that activity, while abstractly deft, will end up having some very real consequences for school districts. Districts that have lost accreditation, and are struggling to improve, will find their budgets cut in order to support students leaving the district. Districts bordering the unaccredited district will find their class sizes ballooning in order to meet the needs of incoming students. Parents and students will lose the connection to their “home” district, and be given an incentive to run away instead of tackle the difficult issues.