This past week, another chapter was written in the history of a decades-long debate about Missouri's responsibility for the education of its children.
The chapter was penned by a St. Louis County circuit court in a decision invalidating a law that gives St. Louis City students the right to attend accredited schools in the county.
The decision was based on the central question of who pays the bill for education.
Going back to 1865, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the Missouri Constitution has required that the state legislature "provide free public education" for children.
You would think that the meaning of such a simple sentence would be pretty obvious. But for as long as I've been covering this place, there has been a continuing debate about what that phrase means in terms of the state's financial responsibility for education.
It was a central issue in the St. Louis school desegregation lawsuit that was filed in 1972.
State attorneys general, including current Gov. Jay Nixon, spent years fighting the state's financial responsibilities for desegregation both in St. Louis and a similar case in Kansas City. Among the arguments was that the state had limited, if any, financial responsibility for integrating St. Louis schools because racial disparities were the result of school district boundaries over which the state had no control.
Missouri lost that argument. And, eventually, the state agreed to a complicated settlement that accepted a degree of state financial responsibility to correct the consequences of racial disparity in the St. Louis City school system.
But that case was based on racial imbalance. It did not address the issue of financial disparities among school districts across the state in which racial disparity was not an issue.
You might think that the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment, which guarantees that states provide "equal protection of the laws," would assure equality for one of the most basic services of state government.
But that's not how it plays out with the courts. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court held it was OK to have unequal levels of per-student spending on education because of differing levels of funding generated from local property taxes.
Although Missouri law provides funds to help ease the differences in property values between school districts, the system fails to completely equalize per-student funding -- by a long shot.
Those disparities led to a major overhaul of education funding in 1993 in the aftermath of a lower state court decision against the school funding system.
As part the evolving acceptance that education is a state responsibility, the legislature included in the law a provision that if a school district becomes unaccredited, as both the St. Louis City and Kansas City school districts have, the children in the district have a legal right to transfer to another district that is accredited by the state Education Department.
The law, however, retains an older provision which requires local schools to cover the transfer costs. In the recent case, the St. Louis County circuit court held that requiring local school districts to cover those costs violates the state constitution's Hancock Amendment, which bans the state from imposing new financial obligations on local government.
The judge cited testimony that potentially thousands of children from St. Louis City could demand seats in St. Louis County schools. That would impose an extra financial burden on county schools for teachers and bigger school buildings. It also would cost the city school district because the law requires that the unaccredited district pay some of costs borne by the schools getting the transfer students.
From my numerous discussions with Mel Hancock, I don't think he ever imagined that his amendment would be used to restrict the right of children to transfer out of unaccredited schools.
Hancock's motivation was to make sure the state did not shift costs onto local government as a way to get around the primary purpose of his amendment, which was to limit the growth of state government spending.
But years after his death, Hancock's amendment now has become the foundation for another step in the state's financial responsibility for local public schools.
In the short term, the St. Louis County circuit court's decision has eased pressure on lawmakers to address the student transfer issue in the remaining days of the legislative session.
But there will remain for future legislatures the much broader question upon which there has been little apparent agreement among state leaders: What, ultimately, is the state's moral, if not legal, responsibility to assure an equitable and accredited level of education for students across Missouri?
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