JEFFERSON CITY — A proposal to overhaul a Missouri school transfer law won state House approval Wednesday after lawmakers pared back provisions that could allow some students to attend a private school at local taxpayers' expense.
Legislators are seeking to revise a 1993 student transfer law after recent decisions by the state Supreme Court upheld the requirement for unaccredited districts to pay the costs of transferring students. Transfers have occurred this school year in the suburban St. Louis districts of Riverview Gardens and Normandy, and the financial strain prompted the state to approve funding to ensure Normandy gets through the school year. The Kansas City district also is unaccredited.
The House-backed measure would require accrediting individual schools along with entire school districts and allow transfers by students who have spent at least one semester at an unaccredited school within an unaccredited district. Transferring students could move to a better school within their home districts, or go to other school districts, charter schools or nonreligious private schools. A regional education authority would assign transferring students to a school and first would seek to fill seats within the unaccredited district.
The private school portion calls for districts to pay tuition using local tax revenues and has generated particular concern. House members limited it to school districts in St. Louis city, St. Louis County and Jackson County and required approval from local voters. Private schools would need to follow polices for student performance and safety requirements and could not require additional tuition payments from parents. Rep. Jay Barnes said supporters had addressed concerns about the private school portion.
In addition, the House legislation calls for unaccredited districts to pay 70 percent of their tuition costs for students who transfer, plus additional money for transportation costs. The change would take effect during the current school year. Receiving school districts could establish policies for class sizes and student-teacher ratios and would not be required to accept transfers that would violate those polices.
House members passed the measure 91-64 on Wednesday, and the bill now returns to the Senate where lawmakers approved a different version of the transfer legislation in February. To send the bill to Gov. Jay Nixon, the two chambers must agree on the same version before the May 16 end of the session.
Rep. Rick Stream, a Republican from St. Louis County, said students enrolled in struggling schools should have "an opportunity to escape these bad buildings." He urged colleagues to consider what they would want if their children or grandchildren attended an unaccredited school.
"You would want those children to have access to a high quality education somewhere else than the buildings they are in, in those unaccredited school districts," said Stream, of Kirkwood.
Some Democrats criticized the private school portion.
"It's about sending money, public tax dollars, to private schools," said Rep. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur.
Earlier Wednesday, a separate Senate bill addressing the Common Core academic standards became bogged down because of attempts to attach the student transfer law provisions to it.
That legislation would create groups of educators to write new benchmarks for student achievement standards in English, math, science and history to be implemented by the 2016 academic year.
Students are scheduled to take tests this fall aligned to the Common Core standards, which have been adopted by more than 40 states. But critics say Missouri lawmakers should have been consulted when the State Board of Education adopted the benchmarks in 2010. Now they want Missouri to write new standards.
"I want to have an open, transparent process so that, at the end, everyone is comfortable with the standards whether they be Common Core or not," said Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue.
Indiana is the only other state to scrap Common Core in favor of writing its own school standards. Under Missouri's bill, the state could still choose to follow Common Core or adopt certain parts of the benchmarks.