Seven decades after the landmark US Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision prohibited racial segregation in public schools, de facto segregation remains a stark reality of the nation’s public school system. Where you live often determines where you go to school, and this puts Black kids at a disproportionate disadvantage when it comes to accessing quality education, since schools largely depend on property taxes to fund their operations. As social scientists William F. Tate et al. explain, the 2010 Turner v. Clayton judgment, passed by the Missouri Supreme Court, was a milestone step toward reimagining education as a community’s responsibility instead of one dependent on a family’s zip code. The lawsuit brought by the Turner and Breitenfeld families to ensure funding for their children’s education at an out-of-district school inadvertently served to expand school access for all.
Missouri’s notable efforts at desegregation can be traced to the ’70s, when the Liddell v. Board of Education cases went to court. This ruling led to the 1983 establishment of the St. Louis inter-district desegregation program, the largest of its kind in the country. Under this plan, Black students from the St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) district could transfer to suburban public schools and white suburban students could transfer to magnet schools in the city. The state paid the receiving districts for the students’ tuition and transportation as well as capital costs of constructing new magnet schools. The state decreased its funding for the transfer program by the late 1990s, but many of the greater St. Louis schools continued to participate in the program with costs covered by individual families.
Although the program enrolled more than 14,000 students at its peak, it didn’t change the segregated structure of schooling or reduce racial disparities in education. Tate et al. emphasize that within the transfer program,
[l]ocal school districts were granted authority by the state to determine student access to their services. A majority of the districts restricted access to educational services to residents living within specific political boundaries.
With the school districts themselves deciding which districts counted as “neighbors”—usually those that were within geographic proximity rather than those in need—the well-funded schools often remained inaccessible to students from low-income districts.
Parents who had the means to send their children to better schools in other districts set up individual tuition arrangements with these schools. The Turner and Breitenfeld families, both white and both of which lived in the SLPS district, covered the tuition to send their children to the prestigious Clayton School District. In 2007, when the SLPS system lost its accreditation, these families asked Clayton School District to begin claiming tuition fee reimbursements from SLPS. As Tate et al. explain, Missouri law obliged “unaccredited districts to pay for the tuition and transportation costs of students to attend schools in accredited school districts,” including Clayton. In successive appeals, Clayton refused to petition for funding, arguing that it “would undermine the existing voluntary inter-district desegregation plan by introducing a funding structure that would be more onerous to SLPS.”
Even as Clayton won their circuit court appeals, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, Turner and Breitenfeld. In the minds of Tate et al., this watershed ruling established that children residing in unaccredited school districts
had a right to transfer to any school in St. Louis County with tuition and transportation costs paid by the unaccredited district. Furthermore, the decision of the Missouri Supreme Court found that qualifying receiving districts could not refuse to accept students seeking to transfer to their schools.
While technically not a desegregation case, Turner v. Clayton nevertheless increased educational access for minority students and more importantly, “shifted the guiding conception of neighbor from mere geographical proximity to another definition of ‘anyone who needs help, or to whom we have an opportunity of doing good.’”