Missouri Senate approves education legislation

Thursday, February 27, 2014 | 8:17 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Students at troubled Missouri schools could switch to nearby quality schools or choose a private school at local taxpayers' expense under legislation the Senate passed Thursday.

The legislation overhauls a student transfer law dating to 1993 that has led to recent financial problems for unaccredited districts that currently must pay for students who want to attend better-performing schools in other districts.

Under the Senate legislation, individual schools would be accredited along with entire districts. Students who attend a struggling school could move to a better one within their home district. Transferring out of a school district would remain an option, but only for students who would attend a failing school within an unaccredited school district and who cannot move to a higher-performing school there. There would be a 12-month residency requirement for students to transfer.

"We are giving those students a choice," said Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City.

Addressing transfers and unaccredited school districts has received significant attention this year, and the Senate spent much of its time this week debating the bill.

Senators approved the measure 27-5. It now moves to the House, where an education committee was considering separate proposals Thursday. Supporters of the Senate bill said additional work would be needed.

Under the legislation, students who transfer from their neighborhood schools could go to other public schools or to a non-religious private school within the district where they live. Unaccredited schools would pay at least some of the tuition. The private school would need to be accredited and administer state English and math assessments for transfer students from public schools.

The bill also allows receiving school districts to set policies for class sizes and student-teacher ratios. Those districts could refuse transfers if the policies would be violated.

One senator questioned whether the bill does enough to prevent schools from failing, and others raised concerns about the private school portion.

"We open up folks, who are not accountable to the public, spending public money," said Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence.

Missouri has three unaccredited school districts: Kansas City, and Normandy and Riverview Gardens in St. Louis County. An additional 11 school districts are provisionally accredited.

The State Board of Education currently classifies school districts as accredited, provisionally accredited or unaccredited. The legislation would bar the eight-member education board from downgrading a school district's accreditation if there is not a board member from the same congressional district as that school district. A school district could not be classified as unaccredited unless at least 55 percent of its schools have been rated as such under the legislation.

Financial problems have arisen already in one school district where students are transferring. Normandy has faced budget difficulties while paying for the transfers, and Missouri lawmakers separately are considering a $5 million rescue to get the district through the current academic year.

The Senate legislation would make it optional for unaccredited districts to pay transfer students' transportation costs and would offer an incentive for receiving districts to offer a tuition discount. If a school board sets tuition at less than 90 percent of what it is entitled, the state would add an extra 10 percent. If a school system offered a bigger discount — at least 30 percent — then state evaluations of the district would not include performance data from transfer students for at least five years.

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