A bipartisan group of St. Louis-area senators presented legislation at a public hearing in Jefferson City on Wednesday to clarify the school transfer issue that has flared in St. Louis and threatens to spread to Kansas City and other districts teetering on the edge of accreditation.
The senators said the bill (SB495) was a starting point and the results of months of back and forth among themselves and with interested parties, but it already began receiving pushback from district officials that said the status quo and the bill as presented would "bankrupt" unaccredited districts and Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal who argued it put to much emphasis on expanding charter schools rather than improving public schools.
Senate leaders made clarifying the school transfer law a priority after the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the provision in a 1993 education reform law that allows students from unaccredited school districts to transfer to neighboring districts. In St. Louis more than 2,000 students have already transferred from the Normandy and River Gardens districts.
The unaccredited districts are required to pay the tuition and transportation costs of the students that are transferring to new districts, and those districts say they cannot bear those costs while trying to improve their schools.
"This is a place the state has never been in terms of education policy," Chappelle-Nadal said. "The amount of money that is leaving the (unaccredited) districts for the remaining students is limited to the point that there wouldn't be any at all."
The consensus legislation allows accredited districts to sponsor the establishment of charter schools in unaccredited districts; provides the option for districts to extend the length of the school year and day; clarifies the requirements that receiving districts have for establishing criteria to limit class size and the number of transfer students they accept; and establishes a clearinghouse that would process the transfer requests.
"This bill is our attempt to provide more options in unaccredited districts - not take away the transfer option - but provide other options for (those students) to get a quality education," Sen. Eric Schmitt R-Glendale, said. "It's by no means a finished product, but we thought it was important to as best we can speak with one voice as a St. Louis delegation."
Phillip Boyd, assistant superintendent at Normandy school district, said the cost of paying for transfers was driving the district into financial chaos.
"The transfer law is crippling to the district because of all the tuition money that is flowing out," Boyd said. "That is not a situation that has a rational outcome in terms of funding the district."
He said he wanted a regional tuition model that would create a constant rate for transfer students, rather than having different tuition costs for each receiving district. Another idea Boyd and many of the senators thought was worth considering was accrediting individual schools within unaccredited districts to limit the number of students eligible to transfer.
Representatives from the Missouri Charter Public Schools Association and Missouri Students First testified in support of the bill, calling it a starting point that still needed work. The charter schools wanted to allow students to transfer to existing charters; Missouri Students First wanted the legislation to include a statewide achievement district and expanded scholarship opportunities.
Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Stephen Green told the committee: "I come to you as an unaccredited school district and I have a problem with that." He challenged the district's status and said it was based on a two-year old designation that now put the district at risk of succumbing to the transfer provision.
If a quarter of the district's population transferred at a tuition cost of $15,000, Green said, the district would face a $40 million shortfall in the first year. If tuition costs were reduced to $11,000, he predicted a $13 million shortfall.
"That would throw us into financial distress... there would be no choice, there would be no district," Green said.
Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, said the status quo was simply unsustainable and the problems would spread to other districts across the state and changes this session were imperative.
"Looking forward I don't think we can view this from a static perspective... this is a growing problem, there are lots of districts in provisional status," Sifton said, still defending the concept of school transfers. "Can't we all agree every child has the right to public education in an accredited school?"
Gov. Jay Nixon's budget released Tuesday included $5 million of supplemental funding to help assist in the district's transfer and tuition costs of sending student to neighboring districts.
During his State of the State, however, Nixon devoted only one line of a speech that focused heavily on education to the school transfer issue.
"We need to fix the law that's led to so much stress and uncertainty for families and schools, as thousands of students are transported from one district to another," Nixon said to little reaction from the General Assembly or public galleries.