By CHRIS BLANK
(JEFFERSON CITY, Mo., AP) — Missouri senators started debate Tuesday over education legislation that takes aim at a student transfer law and struggling school districts
Senate debate continued into the night, and lawmakers adjourned without reaching a final vote.
The transfer law requires unaccredited districts to pay for students to attend better-performing nearby public schools. That has led to financial problems and generated concern about the ability of surrounding schools to control the number of students.
Senate Education Committee Chairman David Pearce said transfers have not been good for anyone and that the goal is to reduce them.
“There is probably not another issue that we’re going to debate on the Senate floor that is more important because it affects all of us,” said Pearce, R-Warrensburg.
Under the legislation, individual schools would be accredited and those attending a struggling school could move to a better building in their home district. Students at a troubled school in an unaccredited district could transfer out if they have lived there for at least a year and there is not room within a high-performing school in the district where they live. Students could transfer to another district or enroll in a nonsectarian private school within their home school system with the unaccredited district using its funds to pay at least some of the tuition.
Senators opted to keep the private school option while adding parameters. The schools would need to be accredited, administer state English and math tests for transfer students from public schools, comply with health and safety laws, and hold a valid occupancy permit.
Some raised concerns about allowing public funds to go to private schools, but supporters said the proposal would offer students another option.
“This is about children who live in the wrong ZIP code,” said Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nada, D-University City.
Senators rejected an attempt by Pearce to require that the private school be in operation for at least three school years.
Students have transferred this academic year from the Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts in St. Louis County and transfers could start in Kansas City, which also is unaccredited. An additional 11 districts are provisionally accredited. Lawmakers separately are considering a $5 million rescue to get Normandy through the school year, and the State Board of Education has imposed financial oversight over the district.
The Senate education legislation also would limit what unaccredited districts pay for transfers with differences between what sending districts pay and receiving districts charge made up through a state fund. Receiving school systems could establish policies for admitting transfer students.
School systems could not be classified as unaccredited unless at least 65 percent of its schools are rated as such.
The bill includes other education issues, such as requiring struggling districts to offer tutoring for underperforming students.
House Education Committee Chairman Steve Cookson, R-Poplar Bluff, said Tuesday he is hopeful a bill would win final approval if the full Senate endorses a measure that “modifies the transfer law without restricting the rights of children in unaccredited districts to attend a quality school immediately.”
In addition to legislative efforts, Missouri education officials also have been working on plans for assisting and intervening in schools. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education last week released recommendations that seek earlier interventions with greater state involvement as a school’s performance worsens.