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Lawmakers to consider potential transfer flood

KANSAS CITY (AP) — Missouri lawmakers will again push legislation this session aimed at preventing an uncontrolled exodus of Kansas City and St. Louis students leaving their failing schools for neighboring districts.

The Missouri Supreme Court agreed last year that state law gives students living in unaccredited districts the right to free transfers and that accredited schools must take the students.

The court sent the case back to St. Louis County Circuit Court where a trial has been pushed back to March to discuss issues including a claim by the accredited schools that it’s impossible to comply.

Transfer backers say all students deserve a quality education. But the accredited districts argue unfettered transfers would overwhelm their schools, and they’ve been calling on the Legislature to make changes.

While such changes have failed to win passage previously, lawmakers say the issue is now more pressing. Kansas City Public Schools are preparing to join a list of unaccredited Missouri schools that already includes St. Louis Public Schools and the nearby Riverview Gardens School District.

Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, filed a bill Thursday that would give districts the ability to reject transfers that would overload classrooms.

It also seeks to fill successful schools within unaccredited districts before allowing students to leave for neighboring districts. Students generally would be excluded from transferring if they hadn’t previously been attending an unaccredited school, addressing fears that students from private and parochial schools also would transfer.

“I think by Kansas City becoming unaccredited that has put an exclamation point on the problem,” Pearce said.

To address concerns that it would take time to catch up students from unaccredited schools, the accredited districts also would get three years before they would be held accountable for the transfer students’ test scores. The bill also spells out what would happen if a struggling district regains accreditation.

Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, said he would probably introduce something similar in the House to address the transfer issue.

“I’m looking out for not only my district to make sure they aren’t cluttered with a lot of other kids who don’t live in the district, but No. 2 and equally as important, we need to give these kids in failing districts a better option and right away,” Stream said. “They need a quality education this year, not next year or two years down the road or five years down the road.”

But Stream said passing the legislation proved tricky last session because some lawmakers try to make its passage contingent on including such elements as vouchers to help families pay for private and parochial school.

Two groups, the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City and the Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis, consider the transfer issue their top priority this session.

“What we are hoping is kind of the same thing that we were hoping would happen last year, that some reasonable parameters can be put in place to guide the transfer of students from the unaccredited to the accredited districts,” said David Kuschel, assistant executive director of the St. Louis group. “Without reasonable parameters it is going to be devastating for the unaccredited districts because they will be losing students and it will be a very difficult situation for the accredited districts just dealing with an influx of students and everything that comes with that.”

Kansas City’s loss of accreditation takes effect Jan. 1. Under current Missouri law, the soonest the state could take over the Kansas City School District would be June 30, 2014.

Pearce also anticipated that legislation would be introduced that would allow the state to take over the district sooner.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James also has proposed taking control of his city’s district.

Pearce said other possibilities also are floating around, including talk among some of the surrounding districts to contract with the Kansas City district to run some of its schools.

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