DESE’s Transfer Guidelines Good – But Districts Shouldn’t Mistake Them for a Free Pass to Violate State Law

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released guidelines this morning for districts impacted by the Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding a Missouri law which allows students in failing districts to improve their education by enrolling in neighboring, more successful schools. See here: Student Transfer Guidance for Unaccredited Schools. There is no doubt that implementing these transfers will be difficult for administrators. And the guidelines released by DESE are a good effort to help districts think about implementation.

Districts, however, shouldn’t confuse one important guideline with actual state law. In particular, paragraph 4 of DESE’s guidelines recommends a non-discriminatory method for receiving districts to determine which students to accept and which not. It states as follows:

(4) If a school district does not have sufficient capacity to enroll all pupils who submit a timely application, the school district should institute an admissions process to ensure all applicants an equal chance of admission, except that a school district may give preference for admission to siblings of children who are already enrolled in the school district under this section.

However, §167.241 does not make a “sufficient capacity” exception. Its last sentence provides very clearly that, “Each pupil shall be free to attend the public school of his or her choice.” Full statute pasted below. There’s also no “receiving district’s recalcitrance” exception to this statutory right.  As a result, there can be no education lottery under §167.241. Administrators in receiving districts are going to have to figure out how to serve these new students seeking a better education.

To DESE’s credit, the guidelines do not take an explicit position on whether these lotteries comport with §167.241. Instead, the absence of any explicit position leads me to believe that paragraph 4 may have been crafted with the realization that some receiving districts may deny access under an “impossibility” argument and DESE wanted to be sure that , at the very least, receiving district’s which deny students only do so under the fairest policy possible. 

To the extent a receiving district is going to flagrantly flout state law by closing their doors to transfer students, I believe this is the best policy. DESE’s “equal chance” policy ensures that decisions aren’t made on improper bases such as income, race, familial status, neighborhood, politics, athletics, or previous academic results. But any district which adopts the “equal chance” policy is only going to do so after violating state law – and that’s unacceptable. The people of Missouri expect better from public institutions.

 

District not accredited shall pay tuition and transportation, when–amount charged.

167.131. 1. The board of education of each district in this state that does not maintain an accredited school pursuant to the authority of the state board of education to classify schools as established in section 161.092 shall pay the tuition of and provide transportation consistent with the provisions of section 167.241 for each pupil resident therein who attends an accredited school in another district of the same or an adjoining county.

2. The rate of tuition to be charged by the district attended and paid by the sending district is the per pupil cost of maintaining the district’s grade level grouping which includes the school attended. The cost of maintaining a grade level grouping shall be determined by the board of education of the district but in no case shall it exceed all amounts spent for teachers’ wages, incidental purposes, debt service, maintenance and replacements. The term “debt service”, as used in this section, means expenditures for the retirement of bonded indebtedness and expenditures for interest on bonded indebtedness. Per pupil cost of the grade level grouping shall be determined by dividing the cost of maintaining the grade level grouping by the average daily pupil attendance. If there is disagreement as to the amount of tuition to be paid, the facts shall be submitted to the state board of education, and its decision in the matter shall be final. Subject to the limitations of this section, each pupil shall be free to attend the public school of his or her choice.