JEFFERSON CITY — Lawmakers gave final approval Thursday to legislation overhauling a Missouri education law that requires struggling schools to pay for students to transfer elsewhere, despite criticism from Gov. Jay Nixon that the measure could force taxpayers to pay for private school attendance.
Officials have been working to revise the 1993 transfer law after recent decisions by the state Supreme Court upheld the requirement for unaccredited Missouri school districts to pay the costs of transferring students. House members passed the legislation 89-66 on Thursday. It passed the Senate 28-3 on Wednesday. If signed by Nixon, it would take effect immediately.
Supporters described the legislation as a compromise that would control the transfer costs and the movement of students and help struggling school systems.
"We need to address this issue today and now," said sponsoring Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood.
The legislation would require accreditation of individual schools along with entire districts and allow transfers by students who have spent at least one semester at an unaccredited school within an unaccredited district. Students first would move to a better school within their home district. If that option isn't available, students could apply to attend an accredited district in the same county or a neighboring one, or go to a private school within their home districts. Accredited districts also could sponsor charter schools within unaccredited districts, and existing high-quality charter schools would have expedited opportunities to expand into unaccredited districts in Kansas City and St. Louis.
The private school option has attracted particular attention. It calls for unaccredited districts in St. Louis city, St. Louis County and Jackson County to pay private school tuition using local tax revenues. Local voter approval would be required, but that step would be waived for a school system that has been unaccredited for three consecutive years.
Parents need options, but the private school choice is the wrong direction, Nixon said earlier this week.
"Using public money for private schools would destabilize the strong foundation on which public education has stood for generations and open the flood gates to even more radical voucher schemes down the road," he said.
Rep. Clem Smith, a Democrat from Velda Village Hills who lives in an unaccredited district, said the measure does little to help struggling schools and seeks to permit school vouchers in certain areas of Missouri.
"This bill does not fix the transfer issue. It furthers experimentation on children who look like me," said Smith, who is black.
Other black legislators back the bill. If Nixon vetoes the bill, "he has turned his back on poor black children," said Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-St. Louis.
Earlier this week, Senate supporters urged Nixon to let the measure take effect because they said the alternative is not workable.
"A veto on this is not leadership," said Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-St. Louis County.
Student transfers occurred this school year in the suburban St. Louis districts of Riverview Gardens and Normandy, whose students predominantly are black, and the financial strain prompted the state to approve funding to ensure Normandy made it through the current year. The Kansas City district also is unaccredited.
To address cost concerns, the legislation would make it optional for unaccredited districts to pay for transportation and offer an incentive for the receiving districts to reduce the tuition paid by unaccredited districts.
Neighboring districts that charge less than 90 percent of the amount to which they are entitled would be eligible to get 10 percent from a state fund, and those that offer an even larger discount wouldn't need to include data from transfer students for at least five years when calculating the district's performance.
Receiving school districts could establish policies for class sizes and student-teacher ratios. They would not need to accept transfers that would violate their class-size policies or force them to hire additional teachers or build more classrooms.