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House panel advances school transfer bill

The debate over a law that allows Missouri students in unaccredited school districts to transfer to neighboring schools will soon hit the House floor, and it will likely bring a fight over sending public dollars to private schools with it.

A House education committee on Wednesday approved its version of a Senate bill after two days of debate and amendments. The committee voted 15-8 to send the bill to the House floor, even though some members expressed concern with the bill’s growing list of provisions.

Lawmakers have focused tremendous energy and attention to a provision in a 1993 law that allows students to transfer out of unaccredited districts after two St. Louis districts lost accreditation last year and hundreds of students moved to districts across the region. The Senate passed a bill at the end of February.

The House committee version includes changes to the tuition rate paid by sending districts to receiving districts for each transfer student. Currently, the sending districts are required to pay the full tuition rate of the district the student is transferring to, which has drained the budgets of unaccredited districts and forced the Normandy School District of St. Louis to seek supplemental funding from the Legislature to make it through the rest of the school year.

Under the House version, the sending district would pay 70 percent of its own tuition rate for each transfer student, no matter what district they attended. Another 10 percent would go to a transportation fund for transfers. When the Senate passed the bill, it set the tuition rate at 90 percent of the receiving district’s rate and only if that district’s board agreed to the reduction.

Proponents of a reduced tuition rate in both chambers have argued it is necessary to keep unaccredited districts afloat and that the marginal cost of educating an additional student is not the full tuition amount.

“If you ask any superintendent … they easily admit that the incremental cost to accept these students is nowhere near the full (tuition) amount,” said Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, the bill’s House handler.

Like the Senate bill, the House version establishes regional educational authorities to manage and oversee the transfer process. But the House committee stripped a provision that would only allow the state board to classify a district as unaccredited if 55 percent or more of its schools were also deemed unaccredited. Students who have already transferred to new schools would be allowed to finish out their educational careers at those schools regardless of accreditation changes at their home districts.

“If they are doing well (at the new school), we should not be putting those kids on a yo-yo, going back and forth,” said Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City.

Once a district reached certain “borderline” performance scores, assistance teams of parents, teachers, school board members and other education experts would visit the district and provide a list of recommendations for improvement. Provisionally accredited districts would be required to implement the improvement measures.

In unaccredited and struggling districts, the bill would allow for extended class time, tutoring programs and require personalized learning plans for struggling students in metropolitan districts. Donations and appropriations could be made to a district improvement fund to be used for such programs.

Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis, said the provisions dealing with tutoring and adding other resources in unaccredited districts wouldn’t be effective if they weren’t coupled with additional state appropriations.

”We are adding expenses on to these financially-strapped districts … adding expenses for everyone, everywhere and we are not footing the bill for the bill,” he said.

Perhaps the most controversial part of the bill allows students in unaccredited districts to transfer to private schools in the same or an adjoining county to the one of their unaccredited district. The Senate bill only allowed transfers to private schools within the boundaries of the unaccredited district.

The House committee also incorporated a handful of other bills into its substitute. The bill includes provisions that would move the school calendar to one based on hours rather than days, boost the minimum teacher’s salary from $25,000 to $30,000 beginning in the 2017-2018 school year and establish a committee to study virtual schools.

The legislation would establish new rules by which “high-quality charter schools” could replicate in unaccredited, metropolitan or urban districts, including automatic approval if the state board failed to act on a charter application within a certain time frame. The bill also moves toward scoring and accrediting charter schools in a way similar to traditional public schools.

But some Democratic lawmakers think the charter school provisions go too far and lose sight of the underlying issue of transfers the Legislature is trying to address.

“On the one hand, we initiate the idea that public schools when they hit 75 percent are dangerously close to provisional, but charters schools when they hit 75 percent, they are deemed high-quality,” said Rep. Margo McNeill, D-Florissant.

The final committee hearing reached a fever pitch Wednesday after Barnes, who was chairing the committee, cut off amendments that a few lawmakers were attempting to offer and moved to a final vote. The vote split members of both parties, with Democrats voting against the bill because of the private school options and charter provisions and Republicans voting against it because they opposed the reduced money that receiving districts would get for transfers.

Despite a moment of heated back and forth before the committee’s final vote, enough members from both parties agreed to move forward with what many called, “not a perfect bill.”

“Sure this bill has a lot of problems with it, a lot of problems, but if you look at this from the perspective that we need to move forward…” said, Rep. Vicki Englund, D-St. Louis, who voted yes. “I think we are doing a disservice to the children of the state if we stop here (in committee)….”

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