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Missouri Senate committee will take up student transfer bill

Although the Missouri Senate has filed several bills aimed at campaign and ethics laws, the House (seen here) has shown little appetite for debating ethics reform in recent years. House Speaker Pro Tem Denny Hoskins predicts that won’t change this year.The Missouri House of Representatives meets in a special session at the Missouri State Capital in Jefferson City, Mo., Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
Although the Missouri Senate has filed several bills aimed at campaign and ethics laws, the House (seen here) has shown little appetite for debating ethics reform in recent years. House Speaker Pro Tem Denny Hoskins predicts that won’t change this year.The Missouri House of Representatives meets in a special session at the Missouri State Capital in Jefferson City, Mo., Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

After a month of hearings and debate, the Missouri Senate’s education chairman is ready to unveil a plan for dealing with the thorny issue of student transfers.

Sen. David Pearce, a Warrensburg Republican, originally planned to discuss his bill during a meeting of the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, but instead the debate will begin Thursday afternoon. He hopes to vote at least one transfer bill out of committee to begin debate in front of the full Senate before spring break next month.

Pearce’s legislation represents a combination of multiple bills filed this year aimed at altering the 1993 law permitting students in unaccredited school districts to enroll in accredited districts, with tuition and transportation provided by the failing districts.

It does not, however, touch on issues such as charter schools or teacher tenure that several other lawmakers included in their bills. Pearce said their exclusion was intentional.

“I want to keep this bill as narrowly focused as possible,” Pearce said Wednesday. “I don’t want this to be a vehicle for a fundamental change in our education system in Missouri. I want this to focus on the transfer issue.”

Critics of the transfer law say it will ultimately drive unaccredited school districts like Kansas City’s into bankruptcy and overcrowd the classrooms of their suburban neighbors.

Under Pearce’s bill, when a school district becomes 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.

If a student in a failing district does choose to attend another district, Pearce’s bill requires them to have lived in the unaccredited district at least 12 months before they can request a transfer.

By Aug. 1, each district school board must establish criteria for the admission of transfer students from other districts. Districts would be allowed to establish class size policies and teacher-student ratios that would allow them to turn students away for space reasons.

When a district is classified provisionally accredited, the State Board of Education must intervene with “individualized improvement measures based on the district’s and community’s needs,” according to the legislation. If a district remains provisionally accredited for five years and isn’t showing growth, it will be classified as unaccredited.

If an unaccredited district doesn’t demonstrate sustained improvement and regain provisional accreditation within five years, the state will lapse the district and either assign its schools to a neighboring district or establish one or more districts within its territory.

Pearce’s bill also creates 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.

The authority would coordinate student transfers in its area as well as manage schools that are assigned to it by the State Board of Education.

The state would have the option of transferring control of underperforming schools in provisionally accredited districts to the authority. In unaccredited districts, however, underperforming schools would automatically be turned over to the jurisdiction of the regional authority.

If the General Assembly eventually does act on the transfer issue, it could have a major impact on Kansas City Public Schools. The district has been unaccredited since 2012 but thus far hasn’t had to abide by the transfer law while legal challenges play out.

Lawmakers have wrestled with the transfer issue for years. But it was given new urgency after the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the transfer law last summer, opening the door for almost a quarter of the students in the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts in St. Louis County to flee those districts.

On Tuesday, the State Board of Education voted to impose immediate financial oversight over Normandy schools. Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said the oversight would allow the department to ensure money approved for Normandy is monitored and judiciously spent.

Normandy previously had warned that it would go bankrupt before the end of the school year because of expenses related to the transfer law.

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