For the second year in a row, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has vetoed lawmakers’ attempt to fix a troubled student transfer law.
Nixon rejected House Bill 42, which went far beyond the transfer law and proposed expanding opportunities for public charter schools and virtual schools throughout Jackson and St. Louis counties.
“House Bill 42 fails to solve the problems of unaccredited schools in the St. Louis region, and it creates new problems and mandates for districts around our state that are already doing well,” Nixon said Friday.
The bill, like its failed predecessors, had split the education community statewide between those who want state resources dedicated to strengthening existing public school districts and those who want to make state funding available for other education options.
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Advocates for and against the bill had been pushing letter-writing and phone-calling campaigns hoping to influence Nixon’s decision.
Reaction against the veto began in advance of Nixon’s veto as supporters of the bill anticipated the governor’s intent when he scheduled Friday’s announcement.
“This veto is indefensible and unfathomable,” Democratic state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal of University City said in a pre-emptive statement. “It is sad to watch this governor kowtow to the education establishment’s army of highly paid lobbyists over the interests of our young people and their parents.”
Nixon’s veto will likely stand. The bill narrowly passed in May. In the House, in particular, the bill advanced only by a vote of 84 to 73, well below the 109 votes it would take to override the veto if lawmakers decide to attempt it in the September veto session.
Vetoing the bill means the state will continue under the existing law to manage the impact of students transferring out of the financially crippled, unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts near St. Louis.
But opponents of the bill had argued its proposed changes wouldn’t adequately protect the unaccredited districts, while opening the door for more charter schools in a state that continues a hot debate on their value to public education.
“We absolutely thank the governor for his veto,” said Mike Lodewegen of the Missouri Association of School Administrators. “It wasn’t a good bill. … It was taking money away from good schools (in Jackson and St. Louis counties) and giving it to charter and virtual schools with no track record of success.”
A year ago, a similar bill reached Nixon’s desk that not only advanced charter school options, but would have created opportunities for transferring students to seek private school options — a line Nixon adamantly refused to cross.
This year, lawmakers pushing for more school choice options took private schools off the table. But the measures that remained still went further than Nixon would ultimately support.
Under the existing law, families in unaccredited school districts can transfer their children to nearby accredited districts, with tuition and transportation costs covered by the unaccredited district.
The unaccredited Normandy Schools Collaborative, now under state control, and the Riverview Gardens School District have struggled to bear the costs, jeopardizing the education of the thousands of students remaining in the districts.
Earlier this week, school districts that opposed the bill joined with Nixon and Missouri Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven in announcing that 22 St. Louis area districts had agreed to reduce tuition costs for Normandy and Riverview Gardens transfer students. The state also committed $500,000 in new funding to support literacy programming in the two districts.
The school districts fixed the transfer concerns themselves, Lodewegen said, rallying behind the struggling districts in much the same way Kansas City area districts have been rallying behind the Kansas City Public Schools.
Proponents of the bill saw the rallying of the St. Louis districts, after years of resisting lowering tuition, as a political ploy to clear the way for a veto that will deny many families more opportunities to choose their public school.
“The status quo steps forward with a commitment to share resources, receives a cash bonus, and Missouri’s families are again denied choice,” said Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association in a written statement.
Proponents of the bill had worked with the governor’s office to try to find more common ground, particularly by dropping private school options in the bill, Thaman said.
“Unfortunately all of this seems to be for naught,” he said. “Our greatest disappointment is for the students and their families.”
Nixon, in his statement, said the original bill focused on resolving some of the differences from a year ago.
“However, as the legislative process unfolded, this bill veered off track,” he said. “By the time it got to my desk, it mandated expensive voucher schemes, neglected accountability and skirted the major, underlying difficulties in the transfer law, while creating a host of potential new problems for districts across the state.”
The vetoed bill recommended limits on the tuition that receiving districts charge and, in return, gave the receiving districts the ability to control class sizes and restrict the number of transfers schools receive.
The bill, however, did not set a cap on tuition — which Vandeven recommended — but offered incentives to encourage school boards to choose to cap tuition fees.
Vandeven also had expressed concern that the state does not have an adequate system in place to hold accountable any virtual schools families might choose.
The transfer law has not had near the impact in Kansas City as in St. Louis. The Kansas City Public Schools regained provisional accreditation in August, ending its exposure to the law.
Even in the school year that started in fall 2013, fewer than two dozen children sought transfers out of Kansas City compared to some 2,000 combined in the Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts.
Unless lawmakers override the veto, Nixon’s action also stalls the bill’s attempt to create transfer options for families throughout Jackson and St. Louis counties.
The bill directed the state to begin accrediting individual schools as well as districts. Schools in Jackson and St. Louis counties that are rated as unaccredited would have to allow children to transfer to accredited schools within their district.
If a district did not have space for transfers in its accredited schools, families could then seek to transfer into a nearby district or charter school.
Charter school expansion is also on hold.
Charter schools under existing law have been restricted primarily within the Kansas City and St. Louis school district boundaries. The bill would allow charters throughout St. Louis County and throughout Jackson County, with the exception of school districts with less than 3,000 enrollment — Center, Lone Jack and Oak Grove.
Currently, 20 charter schools are operating in Kansas City, serving more than 10,000 students compared to some 14,200 K-12 students in Kansas City Public Schools. St. Louis has 17 charters serving more than 9,700 students compared to the district’s 24,154.
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