Private school funding is sticking point as transfer bill heads to Missouri governor

05/15/2014 6:20 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Legislation opening the door for students in failing school districts to receive public funds to attend nonreligious private schools won final approval Thursday in the Missouri House, sending the bill to the governor.

But Gov. Jay Nixon has signaled he may veto it over the private school provisions, and the bill fell 20 votes short of a veto-proof majority in the House.

Under current law, unaccredited districts must pay tuition and transportation costs for students who wish to attend school in a neighboring district. The concern is that a flood of transfers could ultimately bankrupt failing urban districts and lead to overcrowded suburban classrooms.

The legislation was designed to address that situation.

“If we don’t do something, the effects could be devastating to the Kansas City school district and the surrounding districts that I represent,” said Rep. Sheila Solon, a Blue Springs Republican.

Kansas City Public Schools has been unaccredited since 2012, although Superintendent Steve Green has been projecting that the district will perform well enough on state tests to earn at least provisional accreditation this fall. If that happens, the transfer law would not apply to the Kansas City district.

The legislation passed Thursday lets students who attend an unaccredited school transfer to an accredited school within the district. If there are no spots available, students could transfer to a neighboring district or a charter school.

In Jackson County, St. Louis and St. Louis County, students would have one more option: If local voters approve, they could transfer to a nonreligious private school located in the district and use local tax revenue to pay tuition.

If a district remains unaccredited for three years, the private school option goes into effect automatically regardless of the local vote.

Several lawmakers expressed concern about sending public funds to private schools, fearing it could open the floodgates to a much wider voucher program in the future.

“Public schools should be publicly funded and private schools should be privately funded. Period,” said Rep. Jeff Grisamore, a Lee’s Summit Republican.

Taxes imposed for public education should be spent on public education, said Rep. Tommie Pierson, a St. Louis Democrat.

“Taxpayers demand it,” he said.

Rep. Jay Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican, implored lawmakers to support the bill even if they had some trepidation with the private school option.

“There is one issue in this bill the other side of the aisle hates,” he said, “and it’s only about 5 percent of this bill.”

The bill may not be perfect, said Rep. Kevin Engler, a southeast Missouri Republican. But action is needed, he said, before the situation gets worse.

“What’s happening now isn’t working,” he said.

The bill also addresses tuition rates districts that accept transfers can charge unaccredited districts and allows them to set class sizes and student-teacher ratios.

Rep. Vicki Englund, a St. Louis Democrat, urged the governor to sign the bill. But if he does veto it, Englund said, “call us back into special session immediately to address this issue.”

Kit Crancer, state director of StudentsFirst Missouri, praised the legislative action and urged the governor to sign the bill.

“Today’s vote,” he said, “means students in unaccredited districts have the opportunity to receive a better education close to home.”

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

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