A problematic student transfer law is circling back once again on Kansas City-area public school districts with plans for charter school expansion.
At its core, pending state legislation aims to give some relief to the unaccredited school districts in St. Louis crippled by paying tuition and transportation costs for students switching to neighboring districts under current law.
But some lawmakers are pushing expansion of charter school options and transfer opportunities into the legislation. That would bring Kansas City and Jackson County schools back into the divisive school-choice arena.
Currently, charter schools can open only within the Kansas City and St. Louis school districts.
If the legislation became law, the rest of the districts in Jackson and St. Louis counties — except for the Center, Oak Grove and Lone Jack districts — would also be open to charter school expansion.
The bill, a product of a House-Senate conference committee, could see a House vote next week.
“Everyone has to realize what is attainable and what’s best for students,” said state Sen. David Pearce, a Warrensburg Republican and chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “We’ve come up with a delicate compromise.”
Charter schools are publicly funded and operate independently with their own boards. They are one of the hallmarks of advocates for broad school choice. Opponents fear charters open the door to privatization of schools and drain resources from public school districts.
Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat, was the primary negotiator behind what has become a controversial exemption for the Center School District from charter expansion. He said he’s tried to push for common ground.
He originally urged the House-Senate committee to allow charter expansion in Jackson and St. Louis counties only in districts with a state report card score of less than 90 percent.
When he could not get enough support for that exemption, he pushed an exemption for small districts, he said. The committee agreed, Holsman said, under the same rationale for why rural districts aren’t candidates for charter schools: Small districts would have more trouble absorbing the financial impact of losing students to a charter school.
Center, with enrollment of less than 2,500, would not be subject to charter schools. Holsman is a parent in Center in south Kansas City, and his wife works for the district.
“The existence of charter schools should not be punitive,” he said. “They should be placed where there is the most need … as a viable alternative to a failed public school.”
Holsman said he expects to vote against the legislation if it makes it from the House to the Senate because it allows charter expansion in the rest of the Jackson County districts.
Center, even with its exemption, is not supporting the legislation, spokeswoman Kelly Wachel said.
“We still have a greater concern for our surrounding districts,” she said.
Charter school supporters are excited by the chance for expansion, said Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association.
The proposed legislation strikes a balance, he said, allowing for growth while setting stronger measures to hold charters and the universities that sponsor them more accountable.
He doesn’t see charter schools threatening the health of successful school districts. Families will continue to support those schools, he said. “But even if a district has an excellent reputation, families still deserve a choice.”
Some observers question whether the legislation fulfills its initial purpose — protecting unaccredited school districts from financial ruin because of student transfers.
Under the terms of the bill, districts that take in transfer students would get state incentives if they reduce tuition. But the legislation preserves local control of school boards and does not mandate lower tuition rates.
Mike Lodewegen of the Missouri Association of School Administrators called the incentives “laughable.” He said any charter schools rising up in Jackson and St. Louis county districts are most likely to draw private school and home-school families into an under-funded public education system.
“How are rural legislators going to react,” Lodewegen said, “if they are asked to support a bill that costs millions of dollars but did not fix the transfer law?”
State Rep. David Wood, a Versailles Republican who sponsored the House student transfer bill, said successful districts aren’t going to see the dramatic shifts that some opponents of the bill fear.
He said charter schools, which need significant support from families to get started, will go where there is a need and not into areas with successful schools.
The legislation also opens the door for student transfers within the boundaries of a district with individual schools that lose accreditation. The transfer provisions of the bill would apply only to districts in urban areas — Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbia and Springfield. Students could transfer into another district only if no seats are available in an accredited school within the district. The district would not have to provide transportation.
Even with the limitations, Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green opposes the transfer expansion.
School districts such as Kansas City already manage highly transient populations of students from poor families, he said.
The district’s efforts to strengthen schools and provide stability for those families suffer when students can transfer, leaving the district with greater burdens to help the students who remain.
“These are the schools that are most challenged,” Green said, “and this feeds into that more.”