Bill says taxpayer money shouldn't be used for public-to-private transfers

Saturday, April 26, 2014 | 6:14 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Prospects of local taxpayer money going to pay for students to leave struggling public schools for private schools is prompting opposition from a coalition of education organizations that represent teachers, administrators and school board members.

The coalition says using public funds for private school education is unconstitutional and that private schools are not accountable to taxpayers in the same way as public schools. The private school provision is part of legislation overhauling a student transfer law.

Brent Ghan, spokesman for the Missouri School Boards' Association, which is part of the coalition, said the private school portion is a "deal-breaker."

"The voucher provision is something that the education community is very united on that we just cannot go down this road of providing public subsidies for students to attend private schools," Ghan said.

Members of the coalition include the Missouri Association of School Administrators, the Missouri PTA, the Missouri State Teachers Association, and state chapters for the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

Missouri's student transfer law requires districts without state accreditation to pay tuition and provide transportation for students who want to attend a public school in an accredited district within the same county or a bordering one.

Students have transferred this school year from the suburban St. Louis districts of Normandy and Riverview Gardens. The financial strain prompted the state to approve $2 million to help Normandy get through the year. Kansas City schools also are unaccredited, and 11 school districts have provisional accreditation.

Legislation endorsed by a House committee would require accrediting individual schools along with districts. Students at an unaccredited school within an unaccredited district could transfer to a better school within their home district, or go to school districts, charter schools or nonreligious private schools within the same county or a bordering one.

Unaccredited districts would pay private school tuition using local tax revenue. The private school would need to be accredited and administer state English and math assessments for transfer students from public schools.

House members could debate the transfer legislation this upcoming week. House Majority Leader John Diehl, a Republican from St. Louis County, said the private school portion is a good option to explore.

"There's a lot of House members who are supporting this bill because the private option is in there," Diehl said.

The House legislation also seeks to limit what unaccredited districts must pay for transfers while allowing nearby school systems to set policies for class sizes and student-teacher ratios. Districts would not be required to accept transfer students who would cause the policies to be violated.

Missouri senators approved a different version of the transfer legislation in February that included a private school portion. Under that version, students for whom there is not space at a better school within their home district could go to other public schools or to a nonreligious private school within the district where they live.

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