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Normandy High graduates its class of 2014

Normandy High seniors Tremarin Crawford (left) and Dajuan Drake give Tykeria Cunningham some help walking in high heels as they process to their graduation ceremony at Viking Hall on Thursday, May 22, 2014. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY • Gov. Jay Nixon will use his veto pen on a bill allowing students to transfer to private, nonreligious schools because he says it doesn’t address problems in the current school transfer law.

“Every child in Missouri deserves a quality public education, and that is why I am vetoing (the bill),” Nixon said Friday. “(The bill) fails to address the challenges resulting from the existing school transfer law and instead, would create even more problems by allowing public funds to be used for private schools and pulling the rug out from under students who have transferred.”

Legislators searched all of this year’s session for a fix to the transfer law, upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court last summer, which has allowed more than 2,200 children to transfer from the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts into higher-performing schools in the St. Louis region.

The law requires the home districts to pay for tuition and transportation. Those $15 million or so in expenses are drawing down fund balances in both Normandy and Riverview Gardens.

Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, said in a statement that Nixon’s veto condemned the unaccredited school districts to bankruptcy and closure. “It’s a shame that he has once again demonstrated a complete lack of leadership on an issue of such great importance,” Stream said.

“It wasn’t the best bill, but it would have worked,” he added. “It’s too bad — we worked very, very hard.”

Under the measure, students who have attended an unaccredited school in an unaccredited district for at least one semester would have been allowed to transfer to an accredited school within their district. Once those slots filled, students could have transferred to an accredited school in an accredited district in the same or adjoining county or a charter school in their district.

In St. Louis, St. Louis County and adjacent counties and Jackson County, another option would be available: a private, nonreligious school within the boundaries of their district, if approved by voters in the sending district.

Local tax revenue would pay for the private school transfers. If local voters failed to approve the private school transfer option and the district remained unaccredited for three years, students could move to private, nonreligious schools even without voter approval, under the bill.

Nixon has voiced his opposition about the private school transfer option, saying he “draws the line” at public money going to private schools. He reiterated that sentiment Friday.

“Throughout the legislative session I repeatedly made it clear that any effort to send public dollars to private schools through a voucher program would be met by my veto pen,” Nixon said. “The General Assembly ignored my warnings.”

The Missouri NAACP asked Nixon in a letter Tuesday to veto the measure, saying the private school transfer option eroded the public education system.

Nixon has not formally received the bill, but his office said he would act in a timely fashion when he did. A Senate spokesperson said Nixon would probably get the bill next week.

In the last week of the session, the House passed the bill 89-66 and the Senate passed it 28-3. The Senate’s vote was strong enough to overturn a veto. But the House was 20 votes short of a potential override.

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, who has worked for almost a year on a fix to the law, called Nixon a “coward” for his decision and said he was turning his back on poor black children.

“(Nixon) is basically saying it’s OK for white children to get an adequate and superior education and for black children it’s not,” she said.

Katie Casas, state policy director for the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, said Nixon’s veto announcement sent a message to children in the Normandy School District about the value of their education.

“What his veto says to the kids of Normandy School District is that they don’t matter, that they aren’t important enough to receive a high quality education,” Casas said.

Nixon’s office said he had not decided whether to call a special session of the Legislature to address the issue. If he does, Chappelle-Nadal said, he will get the same bill back.

While some legislators, such as Stream and Chappelle-Nadal, were disappointed with Nixon’s decision, others, such as Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, expressed support.

Smith said the bill would have done nothing to fix the transfer situation Riverview Gardens and Normandy are facing. He called the measure “nothing more than a voucher bill.”

If legislators “want to really help the transfer situation, we have to put a cap on the cost (of transfers) and work out the transportation issue,” Smith said. “This bill did none of that.”

Nixon also was concerned about the transportation provision, which would not require the districts that send students to other districts to pay transportation costs for those transfer students.

Many students in unaccredited districts rely on bus transportation to a higher-quality school. Without that, the number of students transferring could fall.

In the bill, tuition would be determined by the local school board of the receiving district. If the district chose to charge less than 90 percent of its actual rate, 10 percent of the receiving district’s rate could be paid from a state fund set up for supplemental tuition, if money was appropriated into the fund. If the receiving district chose to charge 70 percent or less of the sending district’s tuition, transfer students’ test scores would not be counted for five years, and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would consider that decision a factor when deciding whether to name the school accredited with distinction.

DESE released a statement saying it would continue to work with the options available under the current law.

“Our immediate goal is helping students and districts smoothly close out the school year,” the release said.

The bill is SB 493.

Jessica Bock of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

Alex Stuckey is a statehouse reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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