JEFFERSON CITY— Missouri senators started debate Tuesday over education legislation taking aim at a student transfer law and struggling school districts.
The transfer law requires unaccredited districts to pay for students to attend better-performing nearby public schools. That has led to financial problems and generated concern about the ability of surrounding schools to control the number of students.
Addressing transfers and struggling schools is a priority for Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, and debate started several days after the Senate Education Committee endorsed the measure.
Sponsoring Sen. David Pearce said transfers have not been good for anyone and that the goal is to reduce them.
"There is probably not another issue that we're going to debate on the Senate floor that is more important because it affects all of us," said Pearce, R-Warrensburg.
Students have transferred this academic year from the Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts in St. Louis County and transfers could start in Kansas City, which also is unaccredited. An additional 11 districts are provisionally accredited. Lawmakers separately are considering a $5 million rescue to get Normandy through the school year, and the State Board of Education has imposed financial oversight over the district.
Under the Senate legislation, individual schools would be accredited and those attending a struggling school could move to a better building in their home district. Students at a troubled school in an unaccredited district could transfer out if they have lived in that school system for at least a year and there is not room within a high-performing school in the district where they live. Students could go to another district or enroll in a nonsectarian private school within their home school system with the unaccredited district picking up at least some of the tuition.
School systems could not be classified as unaccredited unless at least 65 percent of its schools are rated as such.
The measure would limit what unaccredited districts pay with the differences between what sending districts pay and receiving districts charge made up through a state fund. Receiving school systems could establish policies for admitting transfer students.
The legislation also addresses other education issues, such as requiring struggling districts to offer tutoring for underperforming students.
House Education Committee Chairman Steve Cookson, R-Poplar Bluff, said Tuesday that he is hopeful a bill would win final approval if the full Senate endorses a measure that "modifies the transfer law without restricting the rights of children in unaccredited districts to attend a quality school immediately."
In addition to legislative efforts, Missouri education officials also have been working on plans for assisting and intervening in schools. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education last week released recommendations that seek earlier interventions with greater state involvement as a school's performance worsens.