JEFFERSON CITY — Reining in a wide-open Missouri school transfer law could involve first trying to get students into a better school located in their struggling school district if there is space.
Missouri's current law requires districts without state accreditation to pay tuition and provide transportation for students to transfer to an accredited school in the same county or a bordering one. Lawmakers would control out-of-district transfers by redirecting students first from struggling schools to high-performing ones in the same district.
"What we've seen with the transfer situation is that there's not a lot of winners in that," said Senate Education Committee Chairman David Pearce, R-Warrensburg. "You have kids that are on a bus for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening or the parents have to arrange for transportation. You're reducing community support. You're reducing neighborhood schools. It's not investing in the local community."
The transfer law has led to financial problems for unaccredited districts and prompted concerns about nearby schools' ability to control the number of incoming students. Its focus on entire school districts means students can transfer at their current school systems' expense regardless of how well an individual school is performing.
Senators recently approved legislation that directs state education officials to accredit individual schools in addition to entire school districts. Students who attend an unaccredited school would be allowed to transfer to an accredited one. The option of transferring out of a school district would remain only for students who attend an unaccredited school within an unaccredited district and who cannot move to a higher-performing school within their home school system.
The option of transferring within a district would depend upon how much space is available at a school.
The Senate legislation also would allow students to attend a non-religious private school located within their home district, with the unaccredited district paying some tuition. Supporters hope that could lead to the creation of new schools in communities with unaccredited school systems.
Missouri currently has three unaccredited school districts: Kansas City, Normandy and Riverview Gardens. Some schools in those districts have performed better than others. For example, several Normandy schools and about 60 percent of Kansas City's schools have scored in the provisional or accredited range.
At the start of the current school year, more than 2,600 students were expected to transfer from the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts in St. Louis County. Education officials say more than 500 of the students are not currently attending schools in the other districts. Explanations for that include students returning to their home districts, never leaving in the first place or simply dropping out of school.
Democratic Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, whose district includes the Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts, said the goal is to preserve unaccredited school districts while offering resources to students. She said many families through their actions have indicated they want to stay closer to home.
"We just want to give options within the (school district) boundaries," said Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City. "This is what the families want."
A House committee last week reviewed separate legislation that also would require students to move first to a better school in their home system before allowing them to transfer to another district if there is not space. One measure would allow tuition reimbursement for a non-religious private school if there is no space at a nearby accredited public school.
"I think neighborhood schools, if they're accredited, are the best option," said Republican Rep. Rick Stream of Kirkwood, who is sponsoring one of the House measures.
But that does not mean the option should need to be the first choice for parents, said Kate Casas, state director for the advocacy group Children's Education Council of Missouri. She said a "hierarchy of choices" muddies the process.
"I don't like the hierarchy," Casas said. "I think it creates unnecessary complications for parents."