School reform proposals are in limbo in Missouri General Assembly

Missouri lawmakers are facing increasing pressure to deal with a potential flood of student transfers stemming from the loss of accreditation in urban school districts like Kansas City’s.

But looming over this year’s legislative session is a pledge by House Speaker Steve Tilley, a Perryville Republican, that any plan to deal with school transfers to suburban districts, or adjustments to the state’s school funding formula, be coupled with ideas that have doomed previous reform efforts.

Those include controversial measures such as expanding charter schools, eliminating teacher tenure, basing teacher pay on student achievement and offering tax credit vouchers to parents who want to send children to private schools.

“I don’t want to draw a line in the sand,” Tilley said. “But what I’m telling you is that I think they should be connected and that’s my intention.”

Bolstering that point was Tilley’s decision during the legislative session’s first week to increase the size of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, a move that added members who have previously advocated for many of those same ideas.

“If we’re going to do the foundation formula or the (school transfer) fix, I’d like to get something in return for it,” Tilley said.

Many lawmakers fear that tying the success of bills dealing with the school transfer law, the funding formula and a host of other issues could complicate matters to the point where nothing gets done.

“I think some people are looking at a potential crisis in funding or the transfer issue and see it as leverage to finally get movement on some of their priorities,” said Sen. Will Kraus, a Lee’s Summit Republican. “I think tackling everything individually makes more sense if we really want to get something done.”

Last year’s experience trying to pass an economic development bill also is affecting how many legislators view education reforms this year, said Sen. Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Democrat.

Twice last year, divisions between Republicans in the House and Senate doomed a measure that created numerous business incentive programs and a reworked tax credit system. At the end of the day, lumping everything together contributed greatly to the bill’s demise, Justus noted.

Local lawmakers are worried a similar fate could await bills aimed at Kansas City Public Schools.

In September, the Missouri Board of Education voted to revoke the district’s accreditation because it failed to reach state performance standards. It was the second time in 11 years that the district has lost accreditation.

The district has two years to turn its performance around or face state takeover. In a ruling last summer, the Missouri Supreme Court said students in unaccredited districts can transfer to districts in the same county or adjacent counties, at the home district’s expense, a situation that threatens to bankrupt urban districts and overcrowd classrooms in suburban areas.

Last month, Mayor Sly James of Kansas City announced he would push lawmakers to bring the district under his control.

Rep. Myron Neth, a Liberty Republican, and House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, a Kansas City Democrat, filed legislation Thursday to do just that.

Neth acknowledged that the bill’s chances for success are not great, as there “certainly hasn’t been a groundswell of support for the plan so far from the public or from the legislature.”

“But we wanted to make everyone aware that we are willing to do something,” he said. “We’re trying to get the conversation started. In two years, if we do nothing, the existing school board will likely cease to exist anyway.”

One of the plan’s most vocal critics is Sen. Victor Callahan, an Independence Democrat.

“Seven months ago, the voters elected the mayor to run the city,” Callahan said. “There wasn’t any discussion about the school district.”

When you change the law, it will last longer than the career of one politician, he said, which should give legislators pause before they make this type of change.

“I believe Sly James has the best of intentions,” Callahan said. “But no one would be talking about this if Mark Funkhouser was mayor. It would be ridiculed.”

Callahan is proposing a plan of his own that would tweak current law governing how school district boundaries are changed, a move that many believe would make it easier for districts to absorb portions of their unaccredited neighbors.

In 2007, the Independence School District annexed parts of the Kansas City district following a referendum in both districts. Based on that experience, Callahan said he hopes to improve the boundary change law by ensuring that information is shared between districts before an election instead of after.

One potentially controversial provision of Callahan’s plan involves when one district elects to make a boundary change and the other doesn’t. The state would appoint a panel to arbitrate, and under Callahan’s current legislation, that panel would be required to make any boundary change if it moves students from an unaccredited district to an accredited district.

“I’m working on changing that because obviously it nullifies one side of an election,” Callahan said. “I’m not comfortable with that, so I’m working on changing it. You shouldn’t force a boundary line change like that.”

Callahan said he will continue to work on his bills and expects to bring them before the Senate Education Committee for a public hearing by the beginning of February.

Rep. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat who supports the mayor’s plan for the Kansas City district, said passing any education legislation this year would be a “daunting task.”

“This legislature has shown it can’t deal with tough issues,” Holsman said. “But we’re going to keep pushing and fighting throughout the session.”

House Education Committee chairman Scott Dieckhaus, a Washington Republican, said he understands the concerns that lawmakers are expressing about tackling several issues at once.

“But the reality of it is a lot of these issues are tied together, even if they don’t appear to be at first glance,” he said.

Dieckhaus is working on legislation that includes expanding charter schools, phasing out teacher tenure over 20 to 30 years and allowing tax credits to pay for tuition at private schools.

The convergence of these educational issues also creates an opportunity, said Sen. Jane Cunningham, a Chesterfield Republican who chairs a committee that studied school accreditation last year.

“It brings everyone to the table, which is where I think we can come to a solution,” Cunningham said. “I’d like to deal with issues individually, but some ideas must be connected to make reform work.”

The key to striking a deal, Neth said, will be for “radical reformers to not shoot for the moon and then dig in their heels.”