ST. LOUIS — Calling it a "dangerous voucher scheme," Gov. Jay Nixon on Tuesday vetoed a measure that would allow the use of public money to pay for certain students to attend private schools.
In making good on his vow to block the legislation, Nixon said it would only worsen the problems of a pair of struggling St. Louis County school districts as well as others that risk losing accreditation.
"Not only does (the bill) fail to solve the school transfer problem it was intended to address, it would create new problems and exacerbate the hardship faced by children who attend unaccredited schools," Nixon said at a news conference in St. Louis County.
The school transfer legislation would have eliminated a requirement that unaccredited districts such as Normandy and Riverview Gardens in suburban St. Louis pay for students' transportation to new schools. It called for accreditation of individual schools rather than entire districts.
Nixon vetoed the bill earlier Tuesday in Jefferson City. In a separate move, the Democratic governor also vetoed or froze more than $1.1 billion in spending Tuesday for Missouri's next budget, citing concerns about declining revenues and the potential for new tax breaks to drain state dollars even further.
Students in unaccredited districts in St. Louis city, St. Louis County and Jackson County could have tapped local tax revenue to pay for private school tuition, subject to local voter approval. Systems that had lost accreditation for at least three straight years would not have needed voter consent.
The Senate passed the bill with an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 28-3 earlier this year, but it advanced through a divided House by a vote of 89-66 — well short of the 109 votes needed for a veto override to succeed during the legislature's September session.
Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, a sponsor of the legislation, said Nixon's veto "creates a lot of uncertainty, a lot of chaos" for students in Normandy and other unaccredited districts. He suggested the likelihood of a House veto override "would not be very good."
Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, called Nixon's veto "a fear-based public relations strategy and rhetoric."
"This bipartisan bill gave real solutions to real students," said Chappelle-Nadal, a University City school board member who co-sponsored the transfer legislation. "My disappointment is in knowing yet another few years' worth of students has been deemed expendable in this political fight."
Nixon offered strong support for a move by the State Board of Education to dissolve the Normandy district at the end of this month and replace it with the renamed Normandy Schools Collaborative under the oversight of a state-appointed board. The new district would have no accreditation status, a move that will allow fewer students to transfer out of the district in the coming years.
Nearly 1,000 students transferred from the Normandy district in the most recent academic year, pushing the school system to the brink of bankruptcy, as it had to pay neighboring districts thousands of dollars for each departing student's tuition and transportation costs.
The governor also criticized the Francis Howell district in St. Charles County for its recent decision to stop accepting Normandy transfers after taking more than 400 Normandy students last year. Freed from their obligation to do so by the state changes, more districts could soon follow — especially with the state setting a lower cap on the per-student reimbursement rate.
"It is wrong for Francis Howell to turn its back on 350 students that transferred last year," Nixon said. "I urge the other school districts in the region to step forward and do the right thing."
Nixon said his veto reflects the will of Missouri voters who want more state support of public schools rather than taxpayer-backed voucher programs.
"Of all the problems our schools have, having too many resources is not one of them," he said.
Associated Press correspondent David Lieb in Jefferson City contributed to this report.