Senate panel advances school transfer bill

A bill to address the school transfer and accreditation problems facing Missouri schools will head to the Senate floor next week for debate.

The Senate Education Committee on Thursday approved a single bill that combines elements of a handful of bills that have been heard and debated by the committee since the beginning of the session.

Among a variety of provisions, the bill will accredit individual school buildings and require transfers from unaccredited schools in unaccredited districts to first take open seats in accredited schools within that district before transferring to a neighboring district.

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, offered and won approval of an amendment that would allow students from unaccredited schools to transfer to nonsectarian private schools paid for with local public funds. The committee approved it 7-3.

“Having multiple options available to students in struggling districts is the aim,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “I want to ensure that all children that live in the wrong zip code have options.”

Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, was the only member of the committee to vote against the consensus bill and pointed to concerns with allowing local taxpayer funds to be used for sending students to private schools. He was also troubled by the fact there was nothing in the bill that would compel private schools to accept transfer students.

“This is a big departure and break from anything we’ve done in public education before,” Holsman said.

The committee bill would also establish three regional education authorities — one in St. Louis, one in Kansas City and one for the rest of the state — that would oversee the transfer process. Directors appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate would govern the regional authorities.

A provision to create a single statewide district of struggling schools, offered by committee chair Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, was widely criticized during committee hearings and at recent state school board meetings. Pearce has said this was an option he hoped was more amendable, because it includes additional local control.

Pearce has made the transfer issue a top priority in the committee and was praised Thursday by members for his work in getting a bill out of committee. After the hearing, he stressed the importance of the issue and giving the full Senate a chance to debate it at length and would like to see a final bill approved before the legislative spring break in mid-March.

“I think people are really looking to the Senate for leadership. I think the House is looking at us, the governor is, the state board of education, and they want some direction on this issue,” Pearce said.

The bill also requires the accreditation of all individual schools across the state, as well as charter schools. The state board would not be able to classify a district as unaccredited until at least 65 percent of the district’s schools are unaccredited.

Since the 1993 law that allows for students in unaccredited districts to transfer requires the unaccredited district to shoulder those costs, unaccredited districts like the Normandy school district in St. Louis County have spiraled into financial chaos. The bill creates a supplemental tuition fund in the state treasury that will pay the difference between the tuition calculation of the receiving and sending districts.

Other provisions would allow provisionally accredited and unaccredited districts to extend the length of school days or school year; require the development of personalized learning plans for students in struggling schools; require parental notification once a district became unaccredited; and, restrict students in districts other than St. Louis City and Kansas City from advancing from the fifth to sixth and eighth to ninth grades without scoring proficient on state assessments.

“It is so important to get the debate going,” Pearce said. “I’m just thrilled to get it out of the committee and start the process to see what the will of the body is.”

Senate Majority Floor Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, and Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said Thursday they hope to begin debate on the transfers bill next week and possibly approve legislation to send to the House before the spring break, which begins after the Senate adjourns March 13.

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