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Transfer program undergoing revision for students from newly-accredited school districts

Mehlville High School students bid farewell to classmates who live in the Riverview Gardens School District and ride a bus from that district to classes each day in Mehlville after the final class bell Friday, Feb. 10, 2017. With Riverview Gardens and St. Louis school districts regaining state accreditation administrators at area districts say they plan modifications to the program that allows students from unaccredited districts to study in nearby districts that have full accreditation. Photo by Sid Hastings

JEFFERSON CITY • The Missouri Senate has advanced a package of school choice legislation, including a tax credit scholarship program and a resurrected measure modifying a law that allows students in unaccredited schools to transfer to better-performing school districts.

Lawmakers have sought to change the state’s transfer statute since 2014, when the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a statute giving thousands of students to the chance to transfer out of unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts to higher-performing schools in the St. Louis area.

The law requires unaccredited districts to foot the bill for transfer students’ tuition and transportation in the same or an adjoining district, which has drained the home districts’ savings. Legislators have since made several attempts to expand transfer options to nonreligious private schools in the hopes of offering students options closer to home.

That idea was revived in the bill the Senate debated for several days and passed Monday night. It allows individual schools — not just districts —to be evaluated for accreditation, and gives students in unaccredited schools the option of transferring first to charter or traditional public schools in their district or a nearby district. When those fill up, they’d be able to transfer to private schools.

Sen. Scott Sifton, an Affton-area Democrat who has sponsored previous attempts to reform the transfer law, said the language was “exceptionally similar to legislation this body has put on the governor’s desk twice.”

Former Gov. Jay Nixon, also a Democrat, vetoed similar measures in 2014 and 2015, fearing they would drain resources from public schools and arguing that tax dollars shouldn’t go to private institutions.

Sifton contends that even though some districts, such as Riverview Gardens, have regained accreditation, the reform is no less urgent.

“The issue is slightly less pressing than it was, because we’ve gotten some good news in our region,” Sifton said. “But the unfortunate reality is, we are going to have other instances in which other districts become unaccredited in different parts of the state, and I’m sorry, but the state of the law is currently woefully ill-equipped to further the interests of both transfer and other students.”

The legislation would also offer up to $25 million in tax credits for private donations funneled through education assistance programs, awarded to parents of foster children, children with disabilities and children from military families through a debit account.

Families can then spend money on certain approved expenses, including private school tuition.

Critics such as Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, expressed fear that the change would “open the door” for vouchers to private schools.

Some states including Arizona initially created tax credit scholarship programs limited to special needs students but quickly expanded the law. Similar initiatives throughout the country have held up to court challenges because the state doesn’t directly control how the money is spent — parents do.

“I would put some trust in parents that they’re going to do what’s best for their kids,” sponsoring Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, said.

Democrats also negotiated an amendment to the bill that would mandate that the program can take effect only when the state fully funds the foundation formula and provides additional money for school transportation.

Other senators attached their own education priorities to the bill, including an amendment that would allow students who have to travel a significant distance to school to apply for reassignment to a different school district, and another to help students in certain districts who read below their grade level.

Since assuming office in January, Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican, has expressed support for school choice measures including virtual education and education savings accounts.

He praised the Senate’s efforts on Twitter Tuesday morning.

“Good work done by [Koenig] & MO Senate to put power in the hands of parents with education reform bill last night,” Greitens tweeted.

The Senate bill requires one more vote before it can advance to the next chamber. The House debated a similar transfer bill on Tuesday.

The Senate bill is HB 313. The House bill is HB 118.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch political reporter.