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School Accreditation: Turner Case
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This Discussion Guide is part of Community Conversations at FOCUS St. Louis.  It is meant to initiate civil discourse around the policies that affect the St. Louis region; to hear each other’s perspective. As is the case with all public policies, this issue is complex and multi-faceted, with many stakeholders. Please keep this in mind as you discuss school accreditation and the Turner case in your community. 

School Accreditation: Turner Case
In a ruling amending Missouri policy, the Missouri Supreme Court decided in the landmark Turner vs. the School District of Clayton1 case that students from unaccredited school districts will no longer be authorized to transfer to accredited districts for free. As of this writing, the case appears to be settled; those affected by the decision are still working out how to move forward.
This ruling further states that the law allowing student transfers violates the unfunded mandate prohibition of the Hancock Amendment, which prohibits laws requiring certain actions without providing any necessary funding, and creates a financial burden impossible for the unaccredited, transitional districts to comply with.
In the St. Louis area, both the St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) and the Riverview Gardens School District are unaccredited districts. The debate over the constitutionality of Missouri’s transfer law, as ruled on in this case, has been ongoing.
The State Board of Education classifies public school districts in three categories: accredited, provisionally accredited, or unaccredited. According to a 1993 state law, students in an unaccredited district are eligible to transfer to an accredited district in the same or adjoining county for free. The state statute requires the unaccredited school district to cover tuition and transportation costs for students transferring to accredited school districts. The accepting district would have no say in the number of transferring students.
When SLPS lost its accreditation in 2007, Jane Turner and three other parents representing six students attending the School District of Clayton filed a lawsuit against the Clayton and St. Louis school districts and the City of St. Louis Board of Education. Though the students lived in the SLPS district they were currently attending Clayton schools based on personal tuition agreements. The plaintiffs (the parents) contented that the SLPS district should pay for their students’ tuition as it had been stripped of its accreditation and that the Clayton district should send the tuition bills to the transitional (unaccredited) district.
In the latest legal action, Dr. Terrence Jones, a University of Missouri-St. Louis professor commissioned by the Clayton School District, conducted a telephone survey to determine the number of possible transfers from SLPS if the law were to stand. His research indicates that more than 15,000 students would transfer to county schools or elsewhere. Plaintiff lawyers claim the study is unreliable and flawed since it assumes people had knowledge of the transfer law before they were contacted. Another study, which was conducted by Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis for the defendants, found that paying for tuition for more than 15,000 students to attend county schools would cost SLPS about $175 million a year. This was based on the estimated average tuition rate per student for St. Louis County districts being $11,613, though the actual tuition would vary by school district. In the end, the judge ruled that Clayton and other school districts did not have to accept transfer students from SLPS.
Over the past few years, Missouri lawmakers have attempted to pass a "Turner fix,” to address the legal issue through legislation. To date, the legislature has not been able to come to agreement.
Who else is involved with this issue?
Those involved in this case are school districts in St. Louis City and County. The main group affected is students at unaccredited schools, who now have no option to transfer to accredited schools.
Three Possible Perspectives:
Person A believes that our highest priority should be finding a way to provide high-quality education to students in unaccredited districts. Therefore, students from SLPS or any unaccredited school district should have free access to schools in St. Louis County.

Person B is concerned that the quality of education in neighboring districts will deteriorate if resources are distributed across more students. Thus, we ought to limit the enrollment of students from unaccredited school districts in neighboring districts to only those students that the neighboring districts can reasonably accommodate.

Person C believes that SLPS need to improve and that transfer students divert needed resources from SLPS. For that reason, we should curtail all transfers and dedicate resource to SLPS.

Discussion Questions:
  1. Which of the three people in this scenario do you most closely align with A, B or C?  Why?
  2. What will preventing student transfers mean in the long run?
  3. If the Missouri transfer law is upheld, who should be responsible for covering the costs of transferring students’ tuition and transportation?
  4. Missouri constitution guarantees all children the right to a free, public education but what about those in failing districts? What are ways to help schools gain back their accreditation?

Links for further reading:

  1. May 19, 2011 Mehlville-Oakville Patch article: Turner vs. Clayton Unaddressed by Legislature.
  2. June 15, 2011 St. Louis Beacon article: Compromise to solve school transfer suit couldn't make the grade.
  3. December 24, 2011 St. Louis Post Dispatch article: Study says tuition for transfers could bankrupt St. Louis schools.
  4. January 24, 2012 St. Louis Public Radio article: Firefighters sue school districts over transfers.
  5. January 27, 2012 Webster-Kirkwood Times article: City Firefighters Sue Webster, Kirkwood, Lindbergh School Districts
  6. February 16, 2012 St. Louis Post Dispatch article: Missouri high court hears school transfer case.
  7. March 5, 2012 Fox 2 Now St. Louis article: Clayton Court Case Being Watched Closely By School Districts, Parents.
  8. March 6, 2012 St. Louis Post Dispatch article: Attorneys argue over sweep of Missouri school transfer law.
  9. March 8, 2012 St. Louis Beacon article: In school transfer case, judge must solve intricate puzzle.
  10. May 1, 2012 St. Louis Post Dispatch article: St. Louis County judge rules against student transfers in landmark Turner case.
  11. Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education: What Happens When a School District Becomes Unaccredited?
  12. School District of Clayton: Turner v. Clayton: Judge Rules in Clayton, SLPS Favor

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