Missouri Senate passes education overhaul legislation

Thursday, April 19, 2012 | 5:23 p.m. CDT; updated 11:18 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 19, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY — Struggling school districts in Missouri could see significant changes under two pieces of education legislation passed Thursday by the Missouri Senate.

One measure would allow for an expansion of charter schools in lagging districts, while the other would let the state intervene more quickly and make changes in districts that have lost their state accreditation. Both measures now go to the House.

The charter schools measure, backed in a 31-2 vote, would allow the schools to be set up in districts that have been declared unaccredited. Charter schools also could operate in provisionally accredited districts that have had that status — and consistently poor test scores — for three straight years, starting with the next school year.

"There's potential for good, high-quality public school options through charter schools," Earl Simms, a spokesman for the Missouri Charter Public School Association, said. "We'd like to see districts have this tool in their toolbox."

Kansas City and St. Louis are the only districts allowed to have charter schools under current Missouri law.

The measure would allow charter schools to exist in districts that are accredited without provisions as long as the charter school is sponsored by the local school board. In those situations, a district with more than 1,550 students would not be allowed to enroll more than 35 percent of its students in its charter schools.

There was little discussion before Thursday's vote. However, in an earlier Senate debate, Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal took issue with provisions of the charter school legislation that would allow a student to finish a school year at a charter school even if they move out of that school's district or if they are moved outside of the district when boundary lines are redrawn.

Chappelle-Nadal, D-St. Louis County, said then that those provisions amounted to "educational larceny" because a school district would be forced to use its money to educate a child whose family does not live or pay taxes in the district. Chappelle-Nadal voted against Stouffer's legislation.

In a separate 33-1 vote, the Senate supported legislation that would remove the two-year waiting period given to districts that lose their state accreditation before state officials can intervene. After revoking a district's accreditation, the state Board of Education would decide whether to set conditions for the local school board to remain in place or determine when an alternative governing system for those schools would take effect.

House members approved their own version of the measure last month.

The push to eliminate the two-year waiting period began after the Kansas City School District lost state accreditation. Two other Missouri school districts, St. Louis City Public Schools and the Riverview Gardens School District in St. Louis County, also lack accreditation.

Sen. Jane Cunningham also moved to pass a measure that would require teachers to work longer before they are able to qualify for tenure protections.

Under that measure, teachers would have to spend a decade in a school district before becoming tenured. That's twice as long as what Missouri currently requires. The Senate endorsed the bill two weeks ago after a heated debate about whether to eliminate tenure protections altogether.

Cunningham, R-St. Louis County, met resistance Thursday from other Republicans who favor scrapping tenure. Sen. John Lamping, R-St. Louis County, called the measure "tenure-lite."

Sen. Kevin Engler said the legislation should instead give school districts a way to handle disputes with fired teachers at the local level.

"I don't think that moving it from five to 10 years is a solution," said Engler, R-Farmington. "I think we should get rid of it, but we have to have some kind of due process."

Cunningham tabled the tenure bill after about 20 minutes of debate.

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