Districts Sue to Block Missouri Law Allowing Free Transfers

Five school districts around Kansas City area are suing to overturn the Missouri law that would allow students to transfer out of unaccredited school districts to schools in nearby accredited districts. Although the unaccredited school district is supposed to bear the costs of educating students who reside in its zone but attend school elsewhere, the districts’ attorney argued that the capital costs of providing temporary emergency accommodations to new students could be as high as $3.9 million and isn’t provided for in the statute.

Attorneys for both sides made their opening statements in the Jackson County courtroom last week, with the plaintiffs’ attorney arguing that the law is in violation of the Hancock Amendment of the Missouri Constitution. The amendment bars the state government from imposing an unfunded mandate on public institutions within the state. School districts are counted as public institutions under the amendment.

This case is beginning just as a similar lawsuit, filed in St. Louis County, was concluded with the presiding judge finding the new law unconstitutional, declaring that the districts surrounding St. Louis don’t have to abide by it. The state has already filed an appeal.

The attorney general of Missouri, arguing in favor of the law, says that the estimates provided by the school districts aren’t sound and are based on a telephone survey and “hearsay” evidence. Thus, the data can’t serve as proof that the costs borne by the district’s taxpayers will be higher than what Kansas City will be required to pay.

The survey, by Patron Insight in Stilwell, gathered responses from 600 families, representing at least 1,184 students. They included families in Kansas City Public Schools as well as families in private schools, charter schools and home-schoolers living in the district.

The survey analysis made what the districts described as a conservative estimate that 7,759 students would transfer, but far fewer have actually made inquiries about changing districts, school administrators testified.

The districts couldn’t use conjecture to get out of complying with the law, AG Andy Hirth argued, and only specific numbers obtained in a scientifically rigorous way could be accepted as evidence. Data derived from a fifteen-minute survey conducted via telephone more than four months ago didn’t qualify.

Although the law was meant to go into effect this fall, the state is delaying implementation until all the legal appeals have been exhausted and all the challenges are addressed.

No final rulings through the appeals process are expected soon, so school districts are proceeding without making any transfers under the law as the new school year begins this month. The districts instead are maintaining waiting lists.