The Buzz

Missouri wrestles with school transfer rules as Kansas City braces for potential student flight

Updated: 2014-01-13T04:24:07Z

By JASON HANCOCK

The Star’s Jefferson City correspondent

— There’s no shortage of ideas on how to fix a student transfer law many fear could result in bankrupt urban schools and overcrowded suburban classrooms.

To the state’s most powerful lawmaker, however, a “fix” may not be needed.

“What’s unfair,” said Republican House Speaker Tim Jones, “about allowing a child to have an opportunity at a good education versus being forever stuck and mired in a failing school district?”

Troubled school districts and their suburban neighbors disagree.

They say the law will stick already struggling districts with the bill for students to attend school somewhere else, an express route for bankruptcy.

The nearby districts bracing for a flood of new students worry about overcrowding and their ability to serve students who often lag academically.

All this controversy — with the unaccredited Kansas City schools at the center — will play out in the shadow of years of legislative gridlock.

The obstacles have left many fearing the issue will once again be left unresolved and result in the exodus of thousands of students from the Kansas City school district.

“We’re not holding our breath that something is going to get done out of this legislature,” said Mike Lodewegen, a lobbyist for the Missouri Association of School Administrators. “A lot of people see the problems in urban schools as just an opportunity to push their agenda.”

The debate centers on a 1993 law that permits students in unaccredited school districts to enroll in accredited districts, with tuition and transportation provided by the failing districts.

Last summer, almost a quarter of students in the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts in St. Louis County applied for transfer after the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the law.

Normandy officials told lawmakers they’d need an additional $6.8 million in state funds to avoid going bankrupt before the end of the school year. Riverview Gardens could run out of money next year.

Kansas City Public Schools have been unaccredited since January 2012. While the transfer law was upheld for Kansas City students last month, the local school board has asked for an injunction to put it on hold until its lawsuit against the state over accreditation is resolved.

School officials have said if estimates prove accurate and 8,000 students transfer out of Kansas City, it could cost the district $120 million from its $238 million budget. That probably would force the district to make dramatic cuts to remain financially afloat. Since the transfer law went into effect, Normandy has been forced to lay off 100 teachers, close an elementary school and increase class sizes.

“We won’t improve struggling schools by driving them into bankruptcy,” said Gail McCann Beatty, a Kansas City Democrat and assistant House minority leader.

One of the ideas being floated would accredit schools individually instead of as a district, which would allow students to transfer out of a failing school while still remaining in their community.

“When you have students on a bus for hours of a day or parents who provide transportation miles and miles away, nobody wins,” said David Pearce, a Warrensburg Republican and Senate Education Committee chairman. “It’s a hardship to send kids out to another district, so if we can give them an option locally, that’s a good thing.”

Another idea would give districts the ability to establish class sizes and teacher-student ratios that would allow them to turn some transferring students away for space reasons.

Kate Casas, policy director for Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, said she’d have no problem allowing districts to manage the flow of students into their schools as long as families are provided another option to escape a failing district.

“There is a growing understanding that taking away a child’s choice is not an option,” Casas said. “Our focus will be on making sure kids aren’t left with fewer options than they have today.”

Among the possible ways to protect a family’s choices, Casas said, would be to expand charter and virtual schools and create a tax credit program to allow children in unaccredited districts to attend private or parochial schools.

“The ability for districts to control the number of students that come into their district has to be balanced with some kind of expansion of choice,” she said.

Ideas like tax credits to attend private schools have proved highly controversial and have gummed up the legislative progress on education issues for years. Many fear they could again.

“We need to focus on transfers,” Pearce said. “The more we expand it to include all these other issues will just make it more complicated.”

Another option is a bill Pearce is sponsoring that would establish a statewide “achievement district” to oversee underperforming schools.

The Missouri Association of School Administrators is pushing for a plan to change the way schools are rated, creating a new classification for some failing districts. They would no longer be called “unaccredited” but “academically stressed.”

Dropping any reference to unaccredited school systems could delay the transfer law and give the state department of education time for meaningful intervention, Lodewegen said. Schools in persistently failing districts could be taken over by neighboring districts, but the schools and their students could remain in their community.

“Right now,” he said, “by the time any significant changes are made, the district is set up to fail because the transfer law will leave them bankrupt.”

Casas called the administrators’ plan “nothing but semantics.”

With dozens of bills aimed at the transfer law already filed, and the potential for even more districts falling into unaccredited status in the coming years, House Education Committee chairman Steve Cookson said he’s more optimistic than ever that compromise can be found.

“We can no longer say ‘not our kids, not our problem,’ ” said Cookson, a Republican from Fairdealing. “Now that the law is in place, we’ve hit a critical mass where everyone can set aside differences and see the bigger picture.”

To reach Jason Hancock, call 573-634-3565 or send email to jhancock@kcstar.com.

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