Government & Politics

Fight over private school funds snags Missouri student transfer bill

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)
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) AP

Missouri lawmakers are closer than ever to a potential remedy in their recurring struggle to fix a student transfer law that is financially crippling unaccredited school districts.

But a mighty hurdle stands in the way:

Should public funds ever be used to help children attend private schools?

It’s a justice issue, say supporters like Kit Crancer of StudentsFirst. Families facing a long bus ride to the nearest available accredited public school should be able to take their allotted public funding to a nearer, nonreligious private school.

“If we can give those kids another option close to home, that’s a good thing,” he said.

But opponents like the Missouri School Boards’ Association call it a deal breaker. Private schools that can turn students away and are not accountable to state standards and oversight must not receive public funding, association spokesman Brent Ghan said.

“We can’t be subsidizing private schools,” Ghan said. “We can’t be going down that road.”

A bill expected to go before the full House Wednesday has gotten this far in part because long-battling lawmakers have pared the fight down.

Past controversial proposals that became part of the transfer law debate — like abolishing teacher tenure, making student test scores part of teacher evaluations or opening enrollment between districts — have fallen aside this year.

But the one issue may be trouble enough.

The divide over private school funding could well topple the other work underway to craft some consensus around the details of the bill — which are many. The current House committee substitute is a

65-page bill

with a

10-page summary

that goes far beyond addressing the tuition calculation and class-size restrictions directly targeting the problems with the transfer law.

The bill would modify current law on charter school sponsorship, state assistance in districts nearing loss of full accreditation, school-by-school accreditation and minimum teacher salaries — among other issues.

Though problematic, the issues within the bill could be resolved, most observers say, and result in a new law that would help the state prevent the calamity befalling the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts in the St. Louis area.

Right now, the law requires unaccredited districts to pay full tuition and offer transportation to students who request to attend school in an accredited district.

Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro and her staff are waiting anxiously for the legislature to finish its work. She hopes to be able to present a recovery plan for Normandy to the state school board at its May 20 meeting, just four days after the legislative session ends May 16.

It worries her that the private school issue may ground the legislation.

“If I had my desires,” she recently told The Star, “I would like it (the private school issue) to be separate.”

The Senate passed the bill, Senate Bill 493, in February. The House education committee produced an amended version that passed last week. If it passes the House, the Senate would likely take it into a conference committee to work out differences between the House and Senate versions.

And if it makes it through, it will need Gov. Jay Nixon’s signature.

Nixon has not commented on the bill, but he has made known his feelings against public funds for private schools, telling an audience of St. Louis educators earlier this year, “Our voices must be clear and united. … Public funds belong in public schools.”

A spokesman for Nixon confirmed Tuesday that the governor’s position has not changed.

Nicastro has requested $5 million in emergency funding from the state for Normandy to finish the school year solvent. Riverview Gardens is in danger of bankruptcy within a year, she has said.

Kansas City Public Schools, which is also unaccredited, begins transferring students this fall, but only 23 students requested transfers. The district also is projecting it will perform well enough on its state report card in August to earn at least provisional accreditation, which would end the transfer option.

Concern, however, still extends far beyond Normandy and Riverview Gardens.

Kansas City’s improvement is not guaranteed. St. Louis Public Schools, which is provisionally accredited, has scored deep in the unaccredited range and could be facing potential loss of accreditation beginning in the fall of 2015.

The road ahead is supposed to get steeper for districts as Missouri’s performance measures rise through 2020. New state tests under the Common Core State Standards also pose higher demands on schools.

Normandy and Riverview Gardens, like the Kansas City and St. Louis districts, enroll high concentrations of economically disadvantaged students. Most of the districts struggling to meet the state’s standards are urban or rural districts high in poverty.

The transfer law situation is fueling ideas like subsidizing private school tuition that would undermine public education, said Bob Quinn, director of the Missouri American Federation of Teachers.

“Obviously there is a lot of frustration … (and) people reach the point of, ‘Heck, I’ll try anything,’ 

” Quinn said. “Hopefully we could do something that actually addresses problems.”

On the transfer issue, the bill, in its current version, would limit tuition to 70 percent of the receiving district’s rate and allow the receiving districts to establish limits on class sizes. The premise is that receiving districts could absorb a certain number of students without having to incur significant costs of more staff or buildings.

The state would set up three education authorities — for St. Louis, Kansas City and the rest of the state — with boards that would coordinate transfers.

The bill calls for the state to not only accredit districts, but also schools. The first option the education authorities would consider would be to transfer a student from an unaccredited school to an accredited school within the district.

If a viable spot were not available, then the authority would consider a transfer to public or nonreligious private schools within the county or an adjoining county. Tuition paid to any private school would not exceed 70 percent of the unaccredited district’s tuition rate, or roughly $7,000 per student.

This is the farthest a transfer fix bill has gotten since a state Supreme Court ruling upholding the transfer law in 2010 set off alarms across the state.

“We’re very close,” said bill sponsor Rep. Rick Stream, a Republican from Kirkwood.

It’s a hard road. Even if there were no private school option, area superintendents would be arguing against the current limitations on tuition for the receiving districts, said Gayden Carruth, executive director of the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City.

And for many supporters of private school choice, the bill doesn’t go far enough.

There is no assurance there would be many private school options. Kansas City-area private schools contacted by The Star did not respond or declined to comment.

“I wouldn’t say this is a real school-choice bill,” said Jefferson City Republican Rep. Jay Barnes.

Kate Casas, the state policy director of the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri and a supporter of the private school option, calls it a flawed bill but one that private option opponents need to agree to pass.

“I am surprised,” she said, “... that the education groups … are so willing to kill this bill over their ideology.”

State Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat, said it is the proponents of private school choice who are forcing their ideology into the work of fixing the transfer law.

“They saw this opportunity in Normandy and Riverview (Gardens) as a crisis that they could leverage,” Holsman told an audience at an education forum at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library earlier this month. “They knew that the hostages were there, and they got it through.”

Meanwhile, Normandy and the more than 3,000 students still in its schools wait.

“We’re planning for summer school, and we’re planning for the next school year,” spokeswoman Daphne Dorsey said. “But we still don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re just holding on.”

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