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Missouri Court Liberates Children Trapped in Failed Schools

Each and every parent and child should be able to find the right school before they suffer the consequences of failure.
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Speaking at the American Federation for Children conference in Washington, D.C. last month, Governor Mike Pence (R-IN) told the audience, "fifty years ago we wouldn't let minorities into schools; today we won't let them out."

This imagery was unsettling. The images from fifty years ago of Governor Wallace pledging "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" are horrific enough, but Gov. Pence was challenging us to face the reality that in America today we have been locking kids inside schools that are failing them.

As he said the words, I again realized the enormous weight of what school choice advocates are fighting for and the ominous implications for America's kids if we fail. If we fail to implement broad school choice soon, we call into question the very future of students of all demographics who are being forced to attend schools that cannot or will not meet their needs.

There is nowhere that this is truer than in Missouri where we have an education system that needs to be not just good, but great. To deliver a great education, Missouri must take the bars off our school doors and ensure all children can go to a school that will prepare them for college and a successful fulfilling life in the 21st century.

On Tuesday, which also happens to be the anniversary of Governor Wallace's stance against the integration of the University of Alabama, the Missouri Supreme Court handed down an opinion that in the very least starts to loosen the bars that trap kids in ill-fitting or underperforming schools.

Missouri's High Court ruled that a portion of Missouri's 1993 Outstanding Schools Act, which allows children in failed school districts to transfer to neighboring successful districts at no cost to the family, is constitutional. The ruling on this case, formerly called Turner v. Clayton and now Breitenfeld v. Clayton, could have a significant impact on the tens of thousands children across the state residing in unaccredited school districts.

School districts have refused to comply with this law since Saint Louis Public Schools became unaccredited in 2007. In my role as State Policy Director of the Children's Education Alliance of Missouri, I have worked with countless families in Missouri's failed districts desperate to understand why their children are locked in a failed school. A handful of those families are the focus of this Amicus Brief, which details for the Court why this law is both critically important and entirely possible to implement.

It has been less than 48 hours since the ruling was handed down, and it is still unclear if school districts will continue to violate this law by refusing admission to children desperate for a high quality education. Perhaps against my better judgment and against evidence to the contrary, I am hopeful that this attempt to let some students out of underperforming districts will free the tens of thousands of students in these districts. I am hopeful it will happen this time because Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, the Missouri Supreme Court, the Turner Family, the Breitenfeld family, and the dozens of families CEAM worked with through this trial put too much on the line for me to give up hope.

Even when school districts finally comply with this simple and necessary law, I know full implementation will just be taking the locks off a few of Missouri's most profoundly underperforming schools. Even with complete compliance there will be a lot of locks to break because Missouri kids should not have to wait for a school to fail before they can begin reimaging what their education can be.

A school district should not get to spend years under-educating students and operating drop out factories before a parent can find a different approach to education and move their child. The average ACT score of a district should not have to fall below 18 before a student decides they need to seek a college prep high school. No, each and every parent and child should be able to find the right school before they suffer the consequences of failure. When this happens, we will have a school system that does not have to lock kids in, we will have a system that can bend and mold to fit the needs of each child who walks through their doors.

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