Missouri lawmakers, despite objections from a Kansas City contingent, on Tuesday moved forward a student transfer bill allowing more charter schools in Jackson and St. Louis counties and expanding transfer options for those in unaccredited schools.
The bill narrowly passed the House and then passed through the Senate, which debated long into the night. The House vote was close enough that the bill might not withstand a veto if Gov. Jay Nixon rejects it.
Jackson County legislators, most prominently Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat, pushed to defeat the measure after it cleared the House with just two votes to spare — far from the cushion needed to override a veto from the governor.
The Senate passed the bill by a 23-11 margin.
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Its critics argued that allowing charters in high-performing districts would strip away resources from traditional schools. They voiced the same opposition leveled by several school districts in the Kansas City area that fought the bill.
“The folks in our county don’t want this,” said Sen. Kiki Curls, a Kansas City Democrat. “They don’t.”
The House vote was close enough that the bill would not be veto-proof if Nixon were to reject it.
The measure, House Bill 42, was originally intended to bring relief to the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts in St. Louis. They are crippled by paying tuition and transportation costs for students switching to neighboring districts under current law.
Advocates for charter school expansion and virtual school options pushed favorable language into the bill, arguing that the state should include broader changes in addition to fixing the problematic transfer law.
A year ago, a bill to fix the transfer law included language that would expand transfer options into private schools — a provision that Nixon said would prompt him to veto the bill.
This year, the advocates for more school choice took private school options off the table and focused on charter school expansion.
Supporters of the bill argued that more families should be allowed choices if they are concerned about their local district school.
The sponsor of the bill, Rep. David Wood, a Versailles Republican, said the bill strikes compromises while providing potential tuition cost relief for Normandy and Riverview Gardens.
“I guarantee this fix does a lot more to fix Normandy than doing nothing,” Wood said.
Opponents said the bill is diverting the legislature from fixing the transfer law and threatening the academic and financial health of high-performing districts with charter expansion.
The bill also sets up a structure that aims to speed how the Kansas City and St. Louis school districts are finding new uses for vacant buildings, opening more opportunities for charter schools to get buildings.
“We’re going to load this (bill) up so it is difficult for anyone to understand what’s in this bill,” said Rep. Genise Montecillo, a St. Louis Democrat.
She referred to comments by Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green and the progress the district has made while regaining provisional accreditation.
“We’re going to once again step in and halt that progress — for an experiment,” Montecillo said.
Under current law, charter schools are permitted only within the Kansas City and St. Louis school districts and in unaccredited districts and some provisionally accredited districts. The pending bill would allow charter schools in the rest of Jackson and St. Louis counties, except for districts in Jackson County with enrollments less than 3,500.
The bill also would direct the state to deepen its accreditation process to provide more-detailed accreditation scoring school by school. The bill would allow students to transfer out of individual unaccredited school buildings, though they would have to transfer to another school within the same district and transportation would not be provided.
Students from unaccredited buildings would transfer into another district only if accredited school building space in their district was filled.
The bill would increase the level of accountability of charter schools in their performance measures with the state.
Wood said that the expansion allowed in the bill would not prompt the kind of growth in charter schools that opponents of the bill fear.
Some critics of the bill have said charter schools would pop up “like dandelions in the spring,” Wood said.
Because of the stress on the Normandy district, the pressure is on to move ahead, knowing the bill can’t be perfect, argued Rep. Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, as he called for the vote.
“We have to find a way to move this bill across the finish line,” he said. “We can’t wait another year.”
The Star’s Jason Hancock contributed to this report.