The state Senate gave initial approval Wednesday night to a bill to fix the law that allows students in unaccredited districts to transfer to new schools.
Senators cleared one of the biggest hurdles by agreeing to a compromise on how to calculate the tuition sending districts would be forced to pay for each transfer student.
The bill, as approved by the Senate, classifies all individual schools and allows students in unaccredited schools to transfer to accredited schools within their district. It also creates a threshold of 55 percent of schools becoming unaccredited before the district does. That would save Kansas City Public Schools and the Normandy School District from unaccredited status.
Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, said the bill was "one of the most important pieces of legislation in 30 years" and an exercise in faith and trust among the senators.
Under current law, unaccredited districts are required to pay transportation and the per-pupil cost of the receiving district for each transfer. As hundreds of students left unaccredited districts, those costs overwhelmed budgets and forced the Normandy School District in St. Louis to request $5 million from the Legislature to fund the rest of the school year.
On Wednesday, the Senate approved an amendment, offered by Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale that would allow the local board receiving districts to decide whether or not to charge less than its per-pupil cost. If the board reduced the cost to 90 percent, the state would kick in 10 percent of the tuition rate. If the receiving board dropped the tuition to 70 percent, the assessment scores of the transfer students would not be counted against the district in its overall performance assessment.
"It leaves it up to a local decision to accept less than the per-pupil costs," Schmitt said.
The provision would also incentivize the receiving district to give a tuition discount to the sending district, Schmitt said.
"I don't feel that responsibility ought to be born by the receiving district. It's a state law from 1993 and the state is codifying the process now."
Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, who sponsored the bill, said he thought the tuition amendment was a good compromise to help ease the financial strain on sending districts.
"We are trying to discourage and reduce the number of transfers to begin with," he said. "It shouldn't be an undue burden on receiving districts, and (the amendment) gives them local control."
Pearce said he hopes the legislation will be further negotiated with the House, signed by the governor and become law before the new school year.
The Senate also approved amendments that:
• Allow the state school board to lapse a district it expects won't make it to the end of the year financially,
• Restrict the state school board from classifying a district as unaccredited if no member of the board comes from that district's congressional district, and
• Allow future lawmakers to appropriate funds to be used for extended school days and years.
Once 55 percent of a district's schools lose accreditation, the district would be classified as unaccredited, triggering the transfer option. Affected students would first take open seats in accredited schools within the district; once those seats are full or if none existed, the students would have the option to transfer to a neighboring district, a charter school or a private, nonsectarian school with preference going to low-achieving students.
On Tuesday, the Senate rejected an attempt to strip the private school option, but approved stronger requirements to govern the private schools that could accept transfers.
Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, won approval of an amendment that allows the state board to lapse a district or enter into an agreement with a district the board "reasonably believed" did not have the financial resources to make it through the school year.
"It short changes those kids, when you put them in that position," Schaefer said. "We're not gonna fix these problems by taking more and more general revenue from the state... its unfair to the other districts." He said the amendment would place accountability on the state board to predict the type of financial chaos Normandy currently finds itself in.
Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, said he was concerned attaching lapsed districts onto neighboring districts could create a cascade of failure and ever-growing districts.
"We'll have rolling unaccreditation, rolling bankruptcy and at the end of the day we'll have huge school districts teetering on the edge of accreditation," he said. Ultimately, he predicted, the entire school funding mechanism would "break down when receiving districts say "we are not raising our taxes any more.'"
Other provisions in the bill include: restricting promotion from fifth to sixth and eighth to ninth students who are not proficient in math and English; establishing reading programs and personalized learning plans in St. Louis, Kansas City districts; creating three regional education authorities to oversee student transfers; allowing struggling districts to implement a policy to make home visits available to parents; among others.
The Senate gave the legislation approval on a voice vote and will need to pass a roll call vote before sending it to the House and could do so as early as today.
The House plans to hear its first bills dealing with transfers at a committee hearing today.