If you read my previous article on Missouri’s student transfer law, you will know that just barely a month ago the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the statute that allows students in unaccredited districts to transfer to bordering accredited districts. Since that time as many as 2600 students planned to leave the Riverview Gardens and Normandy school districts for neighboring districts. In response, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued guidance that purported to give districts guidelines for limiting the potential influx of new students. Unfortunately, that guidance has now been called into question…
One of the methods that DESE recommended to districts to control the number of transfers was to set limitations on class sizes and student-teacher ratios. Deriving limitations based off of the suggested class sizes from MSIP 5, DESE encouraged districts to create such policies by August 1. Some school districts, like Ladue and Clayton, already had such policies but other districts, including Mehlville and Kirkwood, adopted new policies based on the DESE recommendation. However, in a recent letter to the Kirkwood school district the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the constitutionality of the class-size limit policies, as applied to transferring students.
The ACLU’s argument stems from the Court’s rationale in Breitenfeld v. Sch. Dist. of Clayton, the Missouri Supreme Court case that upheld the student transfer law. If you recall from Breitenfeld (or my previous discussion of the case), the Court’s decision rested on a bit of judicial sleight-of-hand. Essentially, the court held that the receiving districts were not being burdened with an “unfunded mandate” because they were not being asked to provide any “new” service. Rather, the court found that those districts have always been responsible for providing a “free education” and all that the transfer statute did was require they provide that education to more individuals. Essentially, the theoretical essence of the activity is the same, it just has to be done more times. The Court explicitly rejected any arguments based on increased class sizes or new hiring requirements for the receiving districts or that it would be impossible to accommodate the new students.
The ACLU latched onto the Court’s rationale from Breitenfeld to argue that if the transfer statute is constitutional, then receiving districts must take any and all students who wish to transfer. Additionally, the ACLU noted that many of the students seeking to transfer were minorities, therefore the policy could disproportionally affect minority groups, rendering it potentially discriminatory.
Looking at the Breitenfeld decision, the transfer law, and the ACLU’s letter, the ACLU may have an argument. The transfer law appears to have been partially intended as a placeholder law that was never really intended to go into effect (the court discusses this in Breitenfeld) and the Missouri legislature has failed to act when confronted with the complex and troubling application of the statute. When it came before the Missouri Supreme Court they stretched as well as they could to keep from negating any and all guidance on how to deal with unaccredited districts. Until the legislature acts, accredited districts may be faced with the prospect of having to take any and all students from neighboring unaccredited districts.
It is possible that a district could decide that they disagree with the ACLU and continue to apply a class-size limitation policy, which might invite a lawsuit on behalf of the ACLU and parents from the unaccredited district. How a court would rule on such a policy is far from certain. Court’s have a long history of deference to school districts but the Supreme Court guidance is still so recent that there may be reluctance to buck the state’s highest court. The final resolution may require yet another decision by the Missouri Supremes, which could easily take several months to a year before being decided.