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Broad Missouri education overhaul faces stumbles

Missouri legislators entered the session with aspirations for major education reform, but a lack of consensus on some of the thornier proposals has imperiled the prospects of any schools overhaul getting approved this year.

While education got top billing as lawmakers started their annual session in January, progress soon slowed when House Republican leaders sought to win support for a broader effort amid momentum for adjusting the school funding formula and dealing with transfers of students from three unaccredited school districts in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas.

As lawmakers return from their annual spring break this coming week, they face a big task to get something done. A major education bill still has not been cleared for debate by the full House because majority-party Republicans don’t yet have enough votes to pass it.

The bill would create a tax-credit program to help provide scholarships for students in unaccredited districts to attend private school, expand charter schools and eliminate tenure for future teachers. In addition, school districts would set guidelines for accepting new students transferring from unaccredited school districts, and Missouri’s underfunded school formula would be adjusted.

Asked about disagreements with the measure, House Speaker Steven Tilley ticked off nearly every provision: student transfers, funding formula changes, student scholarships and teacher tenure.

“So that means there’s probably not a consensus on anything in the bill,” said Tilley, prompting laughter from dozens of House Republicans standing behind him during a news conference.

However, Tilley said splitting up the legislation might not help House leaders get the 82 votes needed to pass the measure: “Part of the logic of the leadership team is to try to put parts of it together so it actually could cobble together coalitions to get us to 82.”

Some are second-guessing the strategy.

House Democrats called it “offensive” to require every education issue be included in the same bill. Some supporters of pieces in the broader legislation have advocated for the defeat of the entire package. The Missouri School Boards’ Association, for example, has asked its members to urge lawmakers to block the bill.

Spokesman Brent Ghan said the primary objection is over the student scholarship piece, which it sees as a voucher program that would allow public funds to flow to private schools. Nonetheless, Ghan said the organization would like to see lawmakers address the funding formula and student transfers.

“The bill has become so loaded up with so many different issues. We really think those issues ought to be considered separately because a lot of them are fairly complex and they deserve debate and discussion on their own,” Ghan said.

In all, the House education legislation is 62 pages. Rep. Tishaura Jones, who is sponsoring charter schools expansion efforts, said consolidating the education issues into one bill could bring everything down.

“Every time we take an all or nothing approach, the people end up with nothing at the end,” said Jones, D-St. Louis.

Missouri legislative leaders have identified two school issues as particular priorities.

They want to overhaul the state funding formula to avoid money distribution problems that could allow some school districts to benefit at the expense of others. Several years of underfunding have threatened to cause problems. Budget writers this year plan to give schools roughly what they currently receive, which is more than $700 million less than what the funding formula demands.

In addition, the Legislature planned to modify an existing law requiring unaccredited districts to pay to send students to accredited schools. The law is mired in litigation with at least four court cases pending. In the most well-known case, a group of St. Louis families paid to send their children to the suburban Clayton School District and requested tuition bills go to the St. Louis School District after it became unaccredited. Clayton schools refused, and Jane Turner and three other parents sued.

A trial court this month considered the case after the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that students must be allowed free transfers and that accredited school districts must accept the students. Some are concerned the law will bankrupt unaccredited districts and overwhelm suburban schools.

Turner is no longer part of the litigation but efforts to find a legislative solution have been dubbed the “Turner fix.”

“I don’t think the Legislature is going to do anything,” said Chris Tennill, a spokesman for the Clayton district. “Everybody I have talked to is not very optimistic.”

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