Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon made it clear Tuesday that he will yield no ground that would allow any public-school funding to go to private schools.
Lawmakers in the final days of the 2014 session are wrangling with a complex bill to fix a problematic student transfer law that is bankrupting unaccredited school districts.
Several lawmakers want to make potential transfers from unaccredited public schools to nonreligious private schools part of the deal. But that’s no deal for Nixon.
“That’s where I must draw the line,” he said in a Tuesday news conference. “I’m calling on conferees to remove this provision and get a responsible transfer fix to my desk.”
Current law allows students in unaccredited districts to transfer to nearby accredited districts with the tuition and transportation costs borne by the unaccredited districts. The state’s education department is seeking a fix that would ease the tuition burden while giving the receiving districts the ability to limit the impact on class sizes.
The lawmakers leading the effort to include at least a small measure of private-school choice were not backing off Tuesday.
“This changes absolutely nothing,” said Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a St. Louis County Democrat. “He’s going to be sent a bill. There’s no bill without a private-school option.”
Two St. Louis area unaccredited districts are already in financial distress. Normandy received an emergency $2 million appropriation to stave off bankruptcy this school year, and Riverview Gardens is in danger of bankruptcy within a year without a fix.
Kansas City Public Schools is unaccredited, but only 23 students have requested transfers, compared to some 2,000 combined in the St. Louis districts.
Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green has been projecting that the district will perform well enough again on state performance tests to earn at least provisional accreditation this fall. If that happens, it would stop transfers in the Kansas City area.
Although leaders of the unaccredited districts have been urging lawmakers to lessen the tuition costs, they have opposed any private-school options.
Normandy has closed an elementary school and laid off some 100 staffers this school year, while still needing further relief.
“We’re looking for a tuition fix,” Normandy district spokeswoman Daphne Dorsey said. “But the private-school option is not something we would support.”
Promoters of the private-school option drastically pared the proposal in recent weeks. The choices would be limited to nonreligious private schools in Jackson County, the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County.
The private schools would have to comply with state law regarding school safety regulations and state performance testing of any transferred students. And local funding could go to private schools only after a vote by local residents.
Sen. David Pearce, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee who has usually opposed private-school options, supported the bill, saying it showed collaboration by strongly divided factions to come to what he thinks is a reasonable fix of the law.
The Warrensburg Republican said he thinks Nixon is stepping in late with his hard line against the bill.
House Majority Floor Leader John Diehl said the governor is attempting to “sabotage” the bill.
“The governor is sending a clear signal that he is not interested in fixing the school transfer issue this year,” said Diehl, a St. Louis County Republican in a prepared statement. “Many months, countless hours and hundreds of pages have been put into this issue without any input from the governor.”
But some lawmakers have opposed even the pared-down private-school option, saying it sets a bad precedent. Nixon expressed the same alarm.
“Such a step would destabilize the strong foundation on which public education has stood for generations and open the floodgates for more radical voucher schemes down the road,” Nixon said.
“If you have a problem to solve, solve that problem. Don’t cause others.”