An effort to stave off an uncontrolled exodus of students out of failing schools and into neighboring districts cleared a major hurdle Wednesday night.
The Missouri Senate gave initial approval to legislation aimed at addressing concerns about a 1993 law requiring unaccredited school districts to pay tuition and provide transportation for any students who wish to attend an accredited school in the same or adjacent county.
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Despite the bill’s success, disagreement emerged almost immediately over the impact the legislation could have on the unaccredited Kansas City Public Schools.
The bill says the State Board of Education shall not classify a district as unaccredited unless at least 55 percent of its individual schools are rated as such. Currently, roughly 39 percent of the schools in the Kansas City district are considered unaccredited.
Senate Education Chairman David Pearce, a Warrensburg Republican, said that if the bill were to clear the General Assembly and be signed into law by Gov. Jay Nixon, Kansas City would regain its accreditation for the first time since January 2012.
Under that scenario, Kansas City Public Schools would no longer be subject to the student transfer law that critics fear could ultimately bankrupt the district.
Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a University City Democrat who championed the wide-ranging transfer bill, said Pearce’s conclusion was inaccurate.
The legislation is not retroactive, she said, and the legislature is not trying to “undo what the state has already done.”
“This bill would not change the accreditation status of any district,” she said. “All we’re doing is giving the state board one more tool in the toolbox to measure a district’s performance.”
After hours of debate stretched over two days, the legislation approved Wednesday states that when a school district becomes provisionally accredited or unaccredited, a new rating system would classify 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 there is no room in the student’s home district, that student could transfer to another district, to a charter school or to a nonreligious private school.
For those who choose to attend a private school, at least a portion of tuition would be paid out of local school funds. No state or federal funds could be used.
Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat, attempted to strip the private school provisions from the bill, saying it was improper to allow public money to go to private schools that have strict admissions standards.
“The fundamental question is whether we want our public money to go to private schools that don’t have to educate every child,” Holsman said.
The attempt to remove the language failed, as did a push by Pearce to mandate that a private school be in operation for at least three years before it can accept transfers.
However, provisions were added requiring private schools that receive public funds to be accredited, administer state English and math tests for transfer students from public schools, comply with health and safety laws, and hold a valid occupancy permit.
The legislation allows districts that accept transfer students to establish class size policies and teacher-student ratios that would permit them to turn students away for space reasons. Parameters also were set for how much a district can charge for accepting transfer students, and the bill allows for partial state funding in some circumstances.
Requirements also were established for struggling districts to offer tutoring for underperforming students.
“I’m proud of the work the Senate did on this bill,” Chappelle-Nadal said.
The bill needs one more vote in the Senate before being sent to the House, where that chamber’s education chairman — Republican Rep. Steve Cookson of Fairdealing — said he is optimistic a comprehensive student transfer bill will end up on the governor’s desk in the coming months.