by Sam Levin
The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri is getting involved in the intense school transfer controversy in the state, arguing that two local districts have a legal obligation to accept outside students looking to enroll.
"All children, regardless of their race, where they live, or the income level of their parents, deserve a quality education," Jeffrey Mittman, ACLU-EM's executive director, says in a statement.
The civil rights group has sent letters -- on view below -- to the superintendents of Kirkwood and Mehlville school districts, arguing that it is unconstitutional to turn away students from unaccredited school districts.
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For those who haven't been following closely, a quick recap, as we outlined in our previous coverage: The Missouri Supreme Court ruled in June that children living in unaccredited school districts -- ones that are underperforming -- are entitled to transfer to accredited school districts in the same or adjoining counties. The unaccredited systems must pay tuition for these transfers and fund transportation to at least one alternative school district, the ruling says.
This decision has sparked all sorts of heated debate regarding the funding of these transfers and the impact on class sizes and has also exacerbated tensions around racial and socioeconomic disparities between the accredited and unaccredited districts.
As the Post-Dispatch summarized in its latest story, a wide range of logistical headaches and legal questions have also emerged.
Due to class size concerns, Kirkwood has limited the number of its transfers to 175 and Mehlville has limited its number to 218 -- but the ACLU, in its letters, argues that these restrictions are unconstitutional.
The group says these districts are legally barred from turning students away in this manner.
"School districts cannot arbitrarily refuse to accept students, as Kirkwood and Mehlville have done," Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU-EM, says in a statement. "The ACLU's mandate is to keep government entities from improperly limiting or restricting the constitutional rights of students and their parents. We are available to help people enforce the law and look forward to hearing from families who want to see this happen."
The districts, in putting in place these limits, are following the guidance of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. That guidance, however, suggesting that the districts are allowed to turn away students is incorrect, the ACLU argues.
"The legislature's mandate that you accept all eligible students is unambiguous," the letters to the superintendents say.
Not only do students and parents in the unaccredited school district have constitutional rights to make these transfers, the districts that deny them could be "exposed to significant liability," the ACLU says, "because your actions appear to violate the Federal Constitution." These rights constitute a "liberty interest of which they cannot be deprived without due process," the organization says.
The state education department, in a statement sent to Daily RFT, offers this broad response to the ACLU's comments:
The Department is working with school officials, [Cooperating School Districts], and critical stakeholders, such as the ACLU of Eastern Missouri on transferring students from unaccredited to accredited school districts. Agency staff will continue to communicate with ACLU of Eastern Missouri to ensure that all students have access to quality instruction.
Here are the full letters to Kirkwood and Mehlville.