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First day of school in Francis Howell

Students arrive for the first day of school at Francis Howell Central High in Cottleville on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013. Among the students are 54 transfers from the Normandy School District. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY • Missouri legislators are moving closer to addressing a political riddle that has baffled them for years: how to temper a law that has sent thousands of students in troubled districts to other schools in the St. Louis region.

Though the House and Senate are still working through the details, consensus is building around a change that could curtail the number of interdistrict transfers as well as reduce their financial impact.

If enacted, one version of the legislation could diffuse what has become a crisis among area school systems — nearly two dozen of which have been required to enroll about 2,200 students from the Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts. As a result, Normandy and Riverview Gardens have been financially drained by the tuition and transportation costs of those transfers.

The legislation, which has already cleared the Senate, first would steer students in unaccredited systems to high-performing schools within their districts. It would encourage receiving districts to lower their tuition in exchange for not being held accountable for transfer students’ test scores for up to five years. It also would set a 12-month residency requirement on any student wishing to transfer to another school district.

It’s an approach that suggests lawmakers are more interested in setting parameters around the transfer law than they are in eliminating it entirely.

“We want children to have an option, but we also want to rebuild the districts,” said Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, whose original proposals became part of the Senate bill.

Her sentiment is being expressed in the House.

“We’re not inclined to stop the transfers,” said Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood.

Last summer, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the law that allows children in unaccredited districts to transfer to better schools at their home district’s expense. The ruling led to an unprecedented migration of students from two north St. Louis County school districts into 23 higher-performing school systems across the region.

The law had been largely dormant since enacted in 1993. As lawsuits challenged its validity, the Legislature attempted over several years to modify it, but never made it a priority. Efforts frequently ended with school choice advocates and school district proponents clashing over proposals that either restricted educational opportunities for children in troubled systems, or broadened them.

This time around, all sides are making concessions.

“At the end of the day we’re not going to get a bill everyone loves. We’re going to get a compromise,” said Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, chairman of the Senate Education Committee who combined nine bills into the one piece of legislation that passed the Senate 27-5.

“It’s a serious issue,” he said. “Inaction is no option.”

The Senate measure would allow receiving districts to turn away transfer students once classrooms have reached desirable sizes. It also allows the school boards of provisionally accredited or unaccredited districts to increase the length of the school day.

In addition, it calls for state assistance with transfer student tuition costs. If a receiving district opted to charge less than 90 percent of its entitled tuition, a new state fund would cover the 10 percent difference.

If the receiving district chose to charge at least 30 percent less than full tuition, the transfer students’ test scores would not be counted toward the district’s performance for at least five years.

The legislation also broadens school choice.

It would push back the charter school application deadline by about two months, making it easier for charter operators to open schools in unaccredited districts.

The bill also would allow students to transfer into nonreligious private schools within unaccredited districts, as long as no room exists in that district’s higher-performing schools. The unaccredited district would cover the expense, just as it does to other district schools. The private school would have to meet certain standards spelled out in the legislation.

On Saturday, Gov. Jay Nixon told area superintendents that public dollars belong in public schools and he would oppose such a step.

In many ways, the provision is moot, because no nonreligious private schools exists within the boundaries of Normandy or Riverview Gardens, the only two unaccredited districts in the St. Louis area. But school choice advocates nevertheless call the provision monumental because never before has a Missouri legislative body given approval to the concept of using public money to pay private school tuition.

“It was a big step for the Senate to take,” said Kit Crancer, state director of StudentsFirst Missouri. “The hope would be high-quality providers would open satellite locations within those school districts with some immediacy.”

Chappelle-Nadal, who pushed for the provision, said it was necessary to win more support.

“It was a chess play,” she said. “For us to get what we really need, we’re going to have to get reform.”

Confusion remains over a provision that would require the Missouri School Board to rate school buildings, in addition to districts, under its standards of accreditation. The provision goes on to say the board could not classify a district as unaccredited until it had previously given its lowest rating to at least 55 percent of the district’s schools.

Under this proposal, the unaccredited Normandy district and Kansas City Public Schools would be accredited.

It’s not intended to neuter the school transfer law, said Chappelle-Nadal, who wrote the provision. “Really what it’s meant for is accountability,” she said. “If a majority of buildings are unaccredited, the district would be considered unaccredited.”

Stream said he’s concerned such a provision would make it harder for the state board to classify districts as unaccredited. “We don’t need to be changing the guidelines in the middle of the game here,” he said. “The minute we start changing the guidelines, we’re not doing kids any good.”

Amid the push for legislative action, the Missouri School Board is also considering a proposal that would recast how the state accredits school districts. But a legislative fix would trump and regulatory change.

Legislators have filed more than 20 bills addressing the transfer issue this session. Last week, the House education committee held hearings on its versions. Stream said he expects a bill to be on the House floor by early April. It could be a combination of proposals in the House, he said, or “we could pick up the Senate bill, change it the way we want, and send it back.”

Stream noted that never before has so much work on school transfer legislation taken place this early in the session. The Legislature goes on spring break Friday.

“There’s a sense of urgency,” Stream said. “It’s a good sign.”

Alex Stuckey of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.