Education panel looks at new school transfer legislation

Condensing 9 bills into one or two

The Missouri Senate Education Committee on Wednesday heard the last of nine bills dealing with the school transfer problem facing unaccredited districts in St. Louis and Kansas City, and will now begin the work of crafting one or two pieces of legislation that can be voted out of committee and sent to the floor for debate.

After the hearing, committee chairman Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, said he has tasked his fellow senators on the committee to consider the testimony for and against their particular bills and begin working with each other on finding areas of compromise.

Pearce said he and Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, hope to give the issue time on the floor before the legislative spring break the week of March 17.

“The bottom line is we can’t be married to any one piece of legislation,” Pearce said. “We need to work together to do what’s right for students.”

The proposals on the table approach the transfer conundrum in myriad ways, ranging from creating a statewide “achievement district” of struggling schools to accrediting individual schools within unaccredited districts and allowing students to transfer within their district.

Pearce’s proposal to establish the statewide district was criticized during the hearing and panned earlier this week at a state school board work session, where the board unanimously opposed the approach. One of the state board members called the idea an “educational leper colony.”

The bill discussed Wednesday was sponsored by Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, and would create three “turnaround” options for unaccredited schools within low-performing districts:

• A “restart” model that closes the school and reopens it with an education management organization overseeing its operations;

• A “transformation” model that replaces the principal and implements changes to governance and instructional strategies; and

• A “turnaround” model that replaces the principal and at least 50 percent of the staff, granting the new principal flexibility to implements new operational strategies.

The bill would also allow the school board of a district to terminate teachers in unaccredited schools within that district if they were underperforming. Krista Meyer of the Missouri State Teachers Association told the committee that she thought the teacher termination provision in the law was unfair, because it did not require a hearing prior to the teacher being fired.

“Too often, we have teachers… and every single year students that come out of that class are below proficiency in the areas of math, science, reading comprehension,” Nasheed said. “If that’s the case, we need to look at how that teacher is teaching … and we need to take extreme measures.”

The law that allows the transfers out of unaccredited districts has been in place for more than 20 years, but first took effect at the beginning of this year after being upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court in June. More than 2,000 students transferred out of the Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts, and since the transfer districts are responsible for covering tuition and transportation costs, they have spiraled into financial chaos.

The state board discussed various proposals at a six-hour work session Monday, and it plans to consider a draft proposal of its own at a Feb. 18 board meeting. The Senate has made the issue a high priority this session and devoted significant time to the different bills, but it remains unclear around what solutions consensus can be formed.

At the hearing Wednesday, a former educator told the committee she was disturbed by the fact that most of the bills accepted the underlying premise of the transfer law.

“I am upset with the seemingly universal acceptance of ‘transfer out’ as a means of solving the problem,” said Carole M. Bannes of the St. Louis-area. “What happens when every school in Missouri is no longer accredited, do we transfer to Kansas or Illinois or Arkansas?… (This bill) does not address the causes of the problem, it simply changes the entity to be accredited from the district to the school.”

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