Missouri bill would fund student transfers to private schools

02/23/2014 1:15 AM

02/23/2014 1:15 AM

Students in unaccredited school districts could transfer to nonreligious private schools — with at least part of their tuition paid with public money — under legislation approved by a Missouri Senate committee Thursday.

The private school plan was included as an amendment on legislation aimed at altering a controversial student transfer law.

Passed in 1993, the existing Missouri law requires unaccredited school districts to pay tuition and provide transportation for students to attend an accredited school in the same or adjacent county.

Kansas City Public Schools has been unaccredited since 2012. But so far the district hasn’t had to abide by the transfer law because of legal challenges.

Critics say the law has the potential to drive unaccredited urban districts into bankruptcy while overcrowding the classrooms of their suburban neighbors.

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a University City Democrat, introduced the amendment, arguing that it was about providing parents and students with greater choice.

“I want to make sure all children who live in the wrong ZIP code have options,” she said.

The legislation approved by the committee Thursday says that when a school district becomes provisionally accredited or unaccredited, a new rating system would grade school buildings individually.

That would allow a student in a failing district to first have the option of transferring to a school within that district.

Under the version of the bill sent to the full Senate, a student who is unable to find a spot in a public school within the district would be allowed to transfer to another district, to a charter school or to a nonsectarian private school.

Tuition would be paid to private schools, but only using only the local school levy. No state or federal funds would be used, which Chappelle-Nadal said would translate into savings for the unaccredited district compared to a student transfering to another district.

Senate Education Chairman David Pearce, a Warrensburg Republican, said a day earlier that he hoped to avoid delving into broader education issues that have sunk previous legislative efforts at resolving problems with the transfer law.

While he objected to the amendment and voted against it, his committee ultimately approved it on a 7-3 vote.

Among the “no” votes was Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat, who argued that public money should not be turned over to private schools that are not required to accept every student who wants to attend.

“The problem is private schools are selective,” he said. “They don’t educate all children, and public education dollars are meant to educate all children. When you reduce the resources available for public schools, we are doing a disservice to every child in the district.”

The expansive bill contains numerous provisions targeting how districts handle transferring students, such as allowing them to establish class size policies and teacher-student ratios that would allow them to turn students away for space reasons.

It would also create three “Regional Education Authorities” — one for St. Louis and St. Louis County, one for Kansas City and Jackson County, and a third for the rest of the state. These authorities would oversee unaccredited districts and coordinate student transfers.

While several transfer bills also have been filed in the House, that chamber’s education committee has yet to hold a hearing on the issue.

Pearce said the legislation is far from final. He has been informed that Senate leadership would like to begin debate in the full Senate as early as Tuesday “and spend as much time on the bill as is needed.”

“It is so important to get the debate going,” Pearce said. “People are looking to the Senate for leadership on this issue, so I’m glad we are able to move the process forward.”

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