The Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday over whether two single mothers should have been sentenced to jail time because their children missed more days of school than the local district allowed.
The case centers on Missouri's compulsory school attendance law, which states a parent must ensure their child attends "the academic program on a regular basis."
Assistant Attorney General Shaun Mackelprang, representing the state, argued the definition of "a regular basis" means attending school every day on the district's schedule.
"Do I have to go to school every day? The answer is yes," he told six Supreme Court judges Wednesday morning. "You have to go to school every day that the school is in session."
Ellen Flottman, a public defender representing Caitlyn Williams and Tamarae LaRue, argued the law is unconstitutionally vague and inconsistently applied.
"The state's position is anti-parent. Most of the school districts are not prosecuting these parents," Flottman said Wednesday. "Schools have to work with parents; they have to have policies because they want the kids to go to school.
"But this is a kindergartener and a first-grader. Is missing one day in November and one day in December going to hurt this kindergartener's education that much?"
Williams and LaRue's children attended school in the Lebanon R-3 School District, about an hour outside of Springfield.
The district has a 16.1 percent poverty rate, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, compared to Missouri's 12.7 percent poverty rate.
During the 2021-22 school year, Williams' 6-year-old daughter missed 16 days of school before the district filed a probable cause statement. A Laclede County Circuit Court judge charged Williams with a misdemeanor and sentenced her to seven days in jail.
Williams called her daughter out from school sick for six of the absences, but the school counts these as "verified," not "excused," and tallies the hours and minutes of missed instructional time toward her percentage.
The district's handbook, in which parents check a box that they have read when they register online, says parents must notify the school of absences but it does not clarify the difference between "verified" and "excused" absences, such as those with a doctor's note.
"My clients were not acting knowingly. ... They're being misled by the school handbook and the school administrators," Flottman said Wednesday.
The handbook also says: "The state mandates that students maintain 90 percent or higher attendance each year in school and that continued and valuable learning cannot take place without regular attendance."
State statute does not mandate a 90 percent attendance rate, though students who maintain this level of attendance contribute greater to school accreditation, Mackelprang said Wednesday.
Mackelprang argued in a filing in the case that high attendance contributes toward a school's funding.
"Daily attendance, even down to the hour, has important consequences for schools and, by extension, all of the students at a given school," Mackelprang wrote.
LaRue's 6-year-old son was absent 13 days, according to Flottman, and LaRue called the school with explanation for six of those absences. The district says his attendance, based on the number of hours present, is just under 80 percent.
Court documents say LaRue gave the following reasons for her son's absence: Doctor appointment, fever, at dad's in Iowa, another appointment, overslept and sick. Documents mention siblings and that the family contracted COVID-19 during the school year.
LaRue was sentenced to 15 days in jail by a different Laclede County Circuit Court judge than Williams, but the sentence was changed to two years of probation.
Flottman's argument was three-pronged: The parents didn't know that they were violating the rules because the handbook didn't state that absences without doctor's notes are unexcused; the circuit court failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the children's absences were beyond regular attendance; and the state statute is "unconstitutionally vague" by failing to define what "regular" attendance means.
She opened the arguments by saying she attends church "on a regular basis," although she missed a service recently and has a vacation planned.
"The state has argued that regular means every day," she said as Judge W. Brent Powell interrupted her.
Powell said he liked her church analogy but asked if the nonattendance rules were like the speed limit, where not everyone that gets caught breaking the law gets a ticket but officers have discretion on what is too far.
Flottman responded by using an example introduced in Mackelprang's brief, the Wisconsin compulsory school attendance law which says children should attend school "regularly." The Wisconsin Court of Appeals defined "regularly" as "constantly and uniformly," Mackelprang wrote.
Flottman said the state's argument also helped her clients, for Wisconsin's law has a "specific schema," she said Wednesday.
"Missouri doesn't give that kind of guidance to parents," she said.
Judge Mary R. Russell inquired Mackelprang about why Missouri lawmakers didn't include more specificity in the attendance law.
"Why would the legislature choose to write it this way instead of in a way that is more articulate?" she asked.
"They just have to write it in a way that is adequate," Mackelprang said.
"So, is the legislature leaving it up to local school districts how to enforce this word?" Russell asked, inquiring about the definition of "regular attendance." "How to interpret this word?"
"There probably is some discretion of when they are going to go to the prosecutor with it," Mackelprang said.
Flottman said she was worried about this leniency allowing schools to apply different standards to students.
"The students that take a day off to go deer hunting or their parents who take their children out of school for a week to go to Disney World are not being prosecuted for this. So there's a difference between prosecutorial discretion and arbitrary enforcement," she said.
Judge Robin Ransom asked if she would make the same argument if it were not a criminal case.
"I do think the criminalization of this certainly has to do with it. We're talking about the liberty of people who are just trying to do the best they can," Flottman said.
She said she would argue the state should get involved to provide services to get the children to school.
Mackelprang said the statute is not "anti-parent." He said parents are in control of young children and have options to homeschool or enroll them in private school.
"Women make the decision to enroll them in a public school, like the parents did in this case," he said. "They're subject to the terms of this statute."
The judges can't base their decision on violations of the school handbook, for the state's case is that Williams and LaRue broke state law.
The Missouri Independent, www.missouriindependent.com, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.