Missouri Court Reaffirms Students’ Rights to Transfer to Better Schools

Published July 18, 2016

The Eastern District Missouri Court of Appeals ruled students from the failing Normandy School District have the right to transfer to higher-performing schools in other districts.

The Missouri State Board of Education (MBOE) labeled the failing Normandy School District “unaccredited” in 2013. In 2014, the board took over the district and created a new budget and academic calendar, changed personnel, and renamed the district to the “Normandy Schools Collaborative” (NCS). Because the newly formed NCS had no past performance data, it became classified as “accredited as a state oversight district.”

The district’s failing accreditation status had allowed nearly 1,000 students to transfer to better-performing schools in other districts. The transfer law only applies to unaccredited districts, and after NCS was reclassified, most of the region’s school boards voted in August 2014 to send the transfer students back to Normandy.

A group of parents then filed a lawsuit against the school districts alleging their children were wrongfully prevented from reenrolling at their new schools outside Normandy. The parents also sued the state board of education, alleging the way MBOE reclassified Normandy’s accreditation was not valid.

In August 2014, St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Michael Burton told area school districts their schools must accept Normandy transfer students, ruling, “The state board had no authority to create the classification that it did.”

MBOE appealed Burton’s ruling in March 2015. The appellate court wrote in its June 2016 opinion, “The Collaborative simply cannot move from ‘unaccredited’ to ‘accredited’ without following the required procedures. Accordingly, the unaccredited district, lapsed and proceeding under an alternative governing structure, is subject to the transfer statute.”

A spokeswoman from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch state attorneys are considering whether to appeal the case to the state’s Supreme Court.

Protecting Students

Patrick J. Wolf, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas’ College of Education, says state lawmakers must put a system in place to prevent such a situation from happening again.

“Missouri needs a ‘once in, always in’ provision to protect students from being forced back into their assigned public school if conditions change,” Wolf said. “Eligibility should be expanded beyond just students in ‘failing’ public schools.”

‘Useful Escape Valve’

Michael McShane, director of education policy at the Show-Me Institute, says he has “mixed feelings” about the outcome of the court ruling. McShane says Missouri law does not allow for school choice and the transfer law policies are merely a Band-Aid for a failing system.

“Limiting school choice options to a small number of students is going to stifle the supply of high-quality schools,” McShane said. “I think it is a useful escape valve, but it doesn’t address the underlying issue.

“The real solution for these problems is to allow students in these districts to enroll in charter schools and across district lines in higher-performing schools,” McShane said. “These students need to have the right to choose where they go.”

Michael McGrady ([email protected]) writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.