JEFFERSON CITY — Legislation revising Missouri's school transfer law for unaccredited school districts received a public airing Wednesday as the Senate Education Committee during a public hearing started work on what could prove to be the marquee education issue confronting state lawmakers.
The 1993 transfer law requires districts without state accreditation to pay tuition and provide transportation for students who want to attend an accredited school within the same county or a bordering one. It has prompted concerns about schools' ability to control incoming students and is creating financial problems for unaccredited districts.
About 2,000 students have left the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts in St. Louis County. More could follow suit in Kansas City after the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the transfer law in a case focused on that area and the State Board of Education denied an accreditation upgrade.
The Senate Education Committee focused Wednesday on measures each filed by several St. Louis-area lawmakers.
"This is the year for us to come together and recognize that we need to do things that we can get done," said Republican Sen. Eric Schmitt, of St. Louis County.
The St. Louis-area lawmakers said the legislation is a starting point. Under their proposal, districts receiving transfer students would set policies for class sizes and student-teacher ratios. The State Board of Education would assess individual school buildings within unaccredited districts, and the first option for students in unaccredited districts would be going to an accredited school within their home district.
In addition, accredited school systems could operate charter schools in unaccredited districts, and unaccredited school districts could approve longer school days and academic years.
The Senate Education Committee plans to consider other proposals dealing with the transfer law, among them a bill filed by the committee's chairman, Sen. David Pearce. His bill would include the creation of a "statewide achievement district" to oversee struggling schools.
The most active questioner during Wednesday's hearing was Democratic Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who also has filed an education bill that addresses student transfers. Chappelle-Nadal, of University City, raised questions about several issues, including finances and charter schools.
Missouri's three school districts currently unaccredited are Normandy, Riverview Gardens and Kansas City public schools. Another 11 districts have provisional accreditation.
Gov. Jay Nixon has suggested a $5 million supplement for the current year's budget to prevent Normandy from running out of money this spring. If the school system becomes insolvent, it would cease to exist and the State Board of Education would assign students to other districts, deputy education commissioner Ron Lankford said. He said the most likely scenario would be to keep the students in their current buildings but shift the management to new districts.
Several members of the Senate Appropriations Committee raised concerns in a separate hearing Wednesday that a $5 million bailout could set a poor precedent for how the state deals with unaccredited districts.
Kansas City Superintendent R. Stephen Green told the Senate Education Committee the transfer law could thrust his school system into financial distress.
Kate Casas, state director of the Children's Education Council of Missouri, said any changes to the transfer law also should include creation of additional education options. She has pointed to options such as charters, virtual education and private school choice.
Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey has made addressing the transfer law and unaccredited schools a priority for the session.