Senate panel endorses Missouri school transfer measure

A Missouri Senate committee advanced broad education legislation Thursday that could open the door for students attending struggling public schools to use district funds to transfer to private schools.

The measure seeks to address troubled districts and a state transfer law requiring unaccredited school systems to pay for students to transfer to better-performing nearby public schools. That has created financial problems for unaccredited districts and generated concern about the ability of surrounding schools to control the number of students.

Numerous bills have been filed this year, and Senate Education Committee Chairman David Pearce said getting a measure before the full chamber is a significant step. Senate leaders said legislation could be debated next week.

“What we pass out of committee today is just a start, and more than likely, the end bill or bills will not look like this at all by the time, hopefully, the governor signs it,” said Pearce, R-Warrensburg.

The legislation would limit tuition unaccredited districts pay. Differences between what the sending districts pay and the receiving districts charge would be made up through a state fund. Receiving schools could establish policies for admitting transfer students.

Those who attend struggling schools could move to better schools in their home systems. And students who go to a troubled school within an unaccredited district could transfer out if they have lived in the district for a year and there is not room at a high-performing school where they live. The students could attend another district or enroll in a nonsectarian private school within their home school system, with the unaccredited district picking up at least some of the tuition.

The private school portion was added at the urging of Democratic Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, of University City.

“I want to ensure that all children who live in the wrong ZIP code have options – whatever those options may be,” she said.

Pearce said it merits discussion by the full Senate.

During the current academic year, students have transferred from the Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts in St. Louis County and could start in Kansas City, which also is unaccredited. An additional 11 school districts are provisionally accredited. Lawmakers separately are considering a $5 million rescue to get Normandy through the school year, and the State Board of Education this week imposed financial oversight over the district.

The legislation endorsed Thursday by the Senate committee includes other education issues.

It seeks to restrict academic promotion of struggling students and would require districts facing difficulties offer tutoring to underperforming students. Districts that have a provisionally accredited or unaccredited school could increase instruction time if at least three-quarters of the students have been eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

School systems could not be classified as unaccredited unless at least 65 percent of its schools are rated as such, and the State Board of Education would need to classify charter schools. The legislation also would void teacher contracts when a school district is declared unaccredited and establish three regional education authorities to coordinate student transfers.

Otto Fajen, a lobbyist for the Missouri chapter of the National Education Association, said the private school portion and the voiding of contracts are two big concerns but that there are other concepts the association likes.

Education advocacy group StudentsFirst State Director Kit Crancer said the committee’s endorsement is a “promising next step to address the problems facing Missouri’s underperforming schools and provide the state’s neediest kids the opportunity to attend a quality school close to home.”

In addition to the legislative action, Missouri education officials have been working on plans for assisting and intervening in schools. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education this week released recommendations that seek earlier interventions with greater state involvement as a school’s performance worsens.