Proposals to change a controversial student transfer law got their first public airing Wednesday, starting with a set of identical bills sponsored by a bipartisan group of St. Louis area lawmakers.
While admitting that the bills are a work in progress, advocates say the aim is to address concerns that the status quo ultimately will drive school districts like Kansas City’s into bankruptcy and overcrowd the classrooms of their suburban neighbors.
“This is one of the most important issues to take up this year,” said Sen. Scott Sifton, a St. Louis Democrat. “It also happens to be one of the most complex.”
More than a dozen bills have been filed pertaining to a 1993 law that permits students in unaccredited school districts to enroll in accredited districts, with tuition and transportation provided by the failing districts.
The outcome could have a major impact on Kansas City Public Schools. The district has been unaccredited since 2012 but thus far hasn’t had to abide by the transfer law while legal challenges play out in court.
The bills heard Wednesday allow districts receiving transfers to establish class size policies and teacher-student ratios that would allow them to turn students away for space reasons. Additionally, when a district becomes unaccredited, a new rating system would grade school buildings individually, allowing a student in a failing district to first have the option of transferring to a school within that district.
Unaccredited districts also could lengthen the school day, increase the hours of instruction and extend the school year. And high-performing districts would be permitted to open charter schools in a failing district.
The five identical bills debated Wednesday were sponsored individually by three Republicans and two Democrats, all from St. Louis or surrounding communities.
Lawmakers have wrestled with the transfer issue for years. But it was given new urgency after the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the transfer law last summer, opening the door for almost a quarter of students in the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts in St. Louis County to flee those districts.
Despite laying off 100 teachers, closing an elementary school and increasing class sizes, Normandy has said it will need an additional $5 million from the state to keep from going bankrupt before the end of the school year.
Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green testified Wednesday that being forced to abide by the transfer law would create similar financial difficulties for his district.