JEFFERSON CITY • After hearing nine bills addressing the school transfer law debacle, Senate Education Committee members have agreed on a single measure.
The committee endorsed a bill sponsored by Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, on Thursday to modify the transfer law. The bill could be brought to the Senate floor as early as Tuesday.
Pearce’s measure includes concepts from many of those heard by the committee seeking to modify the 1993 transfer law requiring unaccredited school districts to pay tuition and provide transportation for students wanting to attend an accredited school in the same or adjacent county.
After a Missouri Supreme Court ruling upheld the existing law in June, about 2,000 students transferred from the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts to higher-performing schools throughout the St. Louis region, sparking a debate over possible changes.
Legislators have filed more than 20 bills addressing the transfer issue this session.
Some bills share similar ideas, such as accrediting individual schools in unaccredited districts. Still others suggest various ways to set a tuition formula or cap so districts such as Normandy don’t go bankrupt from paying the tuition and transportation costs of its transfer students.
A consensus on how to fix the problem ailing Missouri schools has not yet been reached. But Pearce’s bill is a step toward such an agreement.
Among the changes in Pearce’s bill:
• The state Board of Education would determine the accreditation status of individual school buildings within each district as well as entire districts. A district would be classified as unaccredited if at least 65 percent of the district’s schools were unaccredited.
• The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would calculate a transient student ratio each year for each public school building and district.
• Free tutoring and supplemental education services would be provided to underperforming and struggling students in troubled districts.
• Troubled districts would be able to terminate school personnel.
• A student would have to reside in an unaccredited district and within the boundaries of an unaccredited school for 12 months before they could transfer.
• Each district would determine desirable class sizes and student-teacher ratios, and boards of provisionally accredited or unaccredited districts could increase the length of the school day.
• Three “regional education authorities” would coordinate transfers. There would be an authority serving St. Louis and St. Louis County, Kansas City and Jackson County, and another for the rest of the state.
• An amendment was added Thursday that would allow students to transfer to private, nonsectarian schools.
Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, offered the amendment and said the aim was to provide multiple options to students.
The amendment was accepted despite the misgivings of Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, who was concerned it wouldn’t be fair to families living in the unaccredited district that previously chose to pay private school tuition.
Kit Crancer, StudentsFirst Missouri state director, said the committee’s actions are a “promising next step to address the problems facing Missouri’s underperforming schools.”
As the Senate moves forward with the bill, the state Board of Education has taken steps to develop different approaches to how the state addresses struggling schools.
On Tuesday, Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro called for quicker state intervention in provisionally accredited districts so they don’t slip to unaccredited status. The state and school boards would agree to school performance contracts, binding the districts to academic targets. A date would be set for unaccredited districts to lapse and then those districts would be given to a different governing board, such as a state appointed board, under her proposal.
Nicastro and the department considered more than half a dozen proposals as they drafted their plan for failing districts. Nicastro’s plan would not change the transfer law.
Public hearings will be held on the plan before the Missouri Board of Education votes on it in March.
Last week, Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, sounded off on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for stepping in and making decisions that could impact student transfers.
Dempsey asked the state Board of Education to let the legislative process “run its course.”
“I ask the (board) to keep in mind the Legislature’s prerogative to set public policy, as well as its own statutory limitations, before making a decision to change our accreditation system,” Dempsey said.
However, state education officials said Tuesday they’re respecting the Legislature’s role in addressing the transfer law.
Also on Tuesday, the House Budget Committee endorsed a plan to provide $5 million to Normandy School District in a supplement to the current year’s budget. The $5 million would be distributed through a special administrative board.
That same day, members of the Missouri Board of Education voted unanimously to take financial control of the district to assure lawmakers that any appropriation would be judiciously spent.
In the House Budget Committee hearing, some representatives questioned the move.
“This whole discussion confuses me a bit,” Rep. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said. “Is there concern (the money) would be misspent if there was not oversight? That wasn’t the problem.”
Despite the steps taken by the board this week — and any future steps it will take on the transfer law — Pearce said the Legislature still should have a significant role in addressing the problem.
“People are looking to the Senate for leadership (on transfers),” Pearce said.
The bill is SB493.