Within hours of the Senate giving final passage of its version of a bill that allows student transfers out of struggling schools and districts, a House committee took up legislation dealing with the issue for the first time this session.
The Senate approved its bill 27-5 Thursday after devoting more than 12 hours of debate over the past two days. The bill would accredit individual schools across the state and only allow a district be classified as unaccredited if 55 percent of the schools in that district were unaccredited.
It would allow students in unaccredited schools to transfer to accredited schools within their district, and in unaccredited districts, students could transfer to neighboring districts, charter schools or private, nonsectarian schools that met certain requirements.
"It's a perfected version, but it's not a perfect bill," said the bill's sponsor David Pearce, R-Warrensburg. "We have a long way to go." On the floor, senators recognized they were still big steps away from sending a bill to the governor's desk and would have to make more compromises once the House took up the issue.
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 have 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.
The Senate's bill addresses the tuition dilemma by allowing the local boards of receiving districts to decide whether 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.
Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey said the transfer situation unfolding in the St. Louis area, and potentially Kansas City and other districts across the state, must be addressed by the Legislature this session.
"It's been a very dramatic situation throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area, and it's likely to get worse if we don't address it," he said. "Many concessions were made ... with as little upheaval to surrounding districts, to the rest of the state, and to our budget."
On the House side, the Elementary and Secondary Education committee discussed a bill sponsored by Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood. The bill includes similar provisions to what passed in the Senate but focuses more on creating opportunities for charter schools to expand to unaccredited districts and eases the tuition burden on sending districts even more than the Senate's version. Stream's bill places the tuition rate to be paid by sending districts at 70 percent of the receiving district's cost and an additional 5 percent that goes to a transportation fund.
Unlike the Senate version, Stream's bill would accredit individual buildings in only provisional and unaccredited districts. While it includes a provision to create a statewide district to oversee struggling schools, Stream said he was open to stripping that provision since the concept seemed to have died in the Senate.
"The goal is to have kids stay in their local district first in an accredited building, because they must be doing something right," Stream said of prioritizing transfers within district.
The bill would establish assistance teams to analyze the problems in provisionally accredited districts and make mandatory recommendations for the district to improve. Members of the committee said they think it is important to emphasize keeping districts from sliding into unaccredited status.
"You have to understand what the problem is before you try and fix it," said Rep. Genise Montecillo, D-St. Louis.
Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis, said he thought improvement strategies would only be effective if they were paired with an investment of additional money to pay for them. He pressed Stream, who also chairs the budget committee, to include funds this year that could be dedicated to implementing improvements in underperforming districts.
"What I don't see in this bill is funding," Butler said. "It means nothing for my district to get individual improvement measures but no investment into those measures."
Stream's bill also includes the provision that drew the most controversy in the Senate - the option to transfer to private schools with local, public funds. While the House committee didn't dig too deeply into the provision, the strongest dissents in the Senate were over its version of the new option.
"That to me is the beginning of a voucher program," said Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence, who voted no. He said he wanted to send a message to the House that "if more of this stuff comes over, we won't accept it."