COTTLEVILLE - A roving panel of Missouri lawmakers started a three-day, statewide fact-finding trip on education policy in a suburban St. Louis school district where hundreds of students from a failing district are being bussed to better-performing schools up to 30 miles away.
The 17 members of the interim House Committee on Education who attended the Monday afternoon meeting at St. Charles Community College heard from superintendents, school choice advocates, local school board members and parent activists. The advance agenda listed eight topics, but the interconnected issues of costly school transfers and failing schools were clearly on the minds of most in the room.
The legislators were encouraged to seek a long-term fix to what those providing public testimony called a short-term solution that came to a head over the summer after a state Supreme Court ruling triggered the exodus of nearly 2,600 students from the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts in St. Louis County.
Pam Sloan, superintendent of the Francis Howell system in St. Charles County, said her district's forced absorption of nearly 500 Normandy students has been a burden, even though it's the Normandy system that teeters on the edge of bankruptcy in order to pay the costs of sending its former students elsewhere while also trying to regain accreditation. The court ruling came decades after the student transfer law was revised to force unaccredited districts to pay for sending students to nearby accredited schools, but years of lawsuit-driven delays shielded its full impact until now.
"While we certainly want to do right by these kids ... our eye has been taken off the ball," she said. "I spend hours each day making sure this runs smooth. Consequently, I don't have the time to work on the issues I was hired for."
Art McCoy, superintendent of the Ferguson-Florissant district in St. Louis County, said his schools have taken in nearly as many transfer students from the two failing districts as the Francis Howell system, albeit with no extra money since his system was not designated as the primary recipient where the displaced students would be sent. McCoy said he was forced to solicit private donations to help with the additional costs, raising $18,000 in little more than a week since taking his plea public.
He too encouraged the committee to look beyond the immediate problem to develop a more sustainable solution.
"Is this really in the best interest of the students?" he said, referring to the hour-long bus rides some transfer students face twice daily. "Their families will tell you no."
Committee members, though, could offer little more than empathy for the superintendents. The panel deals with policy, not purse strings, reminded Rep. Steve Cookson, the committee chairman and a former Ripley County school principal and superintendent.
"We will listen to talk about funding, but we will not be able to respond in any way, because that is not our charge," he said.
Cookson reiterated his call for a revised school calendar that would increase the minimum number of school days from 155 to 174, increase required daily attendance by one hour and make summer school mandatory for students who test poorly on standardized statewide exams in math, communication arts, science or social studies.
Several speakers, including McCoy, called for greater state financial support of early childhood education.
"If we had to choose, I would fund early childhood over 12th grade," he said, suggesting high school seniors could instead be steered into college preparatory programs or vocational training, if the choice was absolute. "A strong start makes a strong finish possible."
A second meeting was planned Monday night in the city of St. Louis. Additional sessions are planned Tuesday and Wednesday in Cape Girardeau, Poplar Bluff, Branson and Joplin.
Next week, the Legislature's Joint Committee on Education will hold an Oct. 1 hearing in Jefferson City focused solely on student transfers.