Transfer bills differ on allowing private options

As the Missouri House began to take up bills seeking to address the school transfer issue that has flared in the state’s unaccredited districts, some provisions included in a version the Senate passed last week have faced skepticism from representatives and testifiers.

A provision that would classify individual schools and allow inter-district transfers within accredited districts has drawn the most skepticism from members, but some lawmakers argue it is important to intervene in individual struggling schools before the entire district loses it accredited classification.

On Wednesday, the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee continued to hear testimony and question the specifics of bills sponsored by Reps. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, and Mike Cierpiot, R-Lee’s Summit.

While the two bills share many of the same provisions, they differ on their approach to allowing private options for transfer students in unaccredited districts.

Cierpiot’s private option only kicks in when all of the superintendents within a reasonable bus ride of the unaccredited district said there were no more spaces available for transfers. It would also be funded with a tax credit for donations into a scholarship fund.

“I’m trying to find a way to do something that helps these children without bankrupting the sending districts,” he said.

In Stream’s bill, the private option is funded by the sending district and would be available alongside other out-of-district transfer options.

“Every child needs to have access to high quality as soon as possible,” Stream said. “My definition of as soon as possible is today, tomorrow, certainly by next school year.”

The tuition rate in Stream’s bills goes farther to ease the financial burden sending districts of subsidizing transfer students. His bill would set the tuition rate at 70 percent of the receiving district’s per-pupil cost. He said he did not know of any receiving districts in St. Louis that had to add teachers or classrooms because of the influx of transfer students.

The Senate bill includes a provision that allows students in unaccredited schools in accredited districts to transfer to new schools in that district. Neither of the House bills would expand the transfer option to districts that weren’t unaccredited.

Missouri NEA representative Otto Fajen told the committee the individual building accreditation was a significant policy change and would present a variety of unintended challenges. “We implore you to think twice before intervening too quickly in specific schools before districts can make those choices,” he said. “This is a pretty significant change.”

Some House members, however, said it was important to intervene as early as possible and look at struggling schools before they overwhelmed the entire district.

“My concern is we know there are accredited districts that have high performing and struggling buildings in the same district,” said Rep. Kathryn Swan, R-Cape Girardeau. “I hate to wait to pull in an assistance team to a building that is provisionally unaccredited because hopefully the district will never become unaccredited.”

Stream’s bill would create review teams of teachers, parents, local stakeholders and education experts from inside and outside the district that would study the problems of the district and make mandatory improvement recommendations in provisionally accredited districts.

But Democrats pushed for more funding to implement the improvement interventions in struggling districts. “There is no guaranteed funding for those programs; we lay out specific interventions but there is no funding and that means nothing for my district,” said Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis.

Some of the lawmakers and people who testified on the bills questioned the underlying premise of the transfer law and questioned whether moving students was really doing a better job of teaching them.

“Are we solving the problem by just shifting the students around?” asked Rep. Genise Montecillo, D-St. Louis. “My worry is we are just masking a problem not making it any better.”

Mike Lodewegan, who testified on behalf of the Missouri Association of School Administrators, told lawmakers he was disappointed with how the debate over the transfer law had unfolded this session.

“This issue is a lost opportunity given the way the conversations have been going,” Lodewegan said. “We seem to be all about choice, but not about school improvement, which is disappointing.”

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