The Missouri Senate has passed the final version of legislation designed to ease the burden of the state's school transfer law. It includes a provision that would end free transportation for transfer students -- a provision that would make it harder for students from failing schools to actually attend other districts.
Senate Bill 493 also contains a controversial provision opposed by Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, that would allow some students to transfer from unaccredited public schools to private, nonsectarian schools, a provision known as the "private option." On Tuesday, the governor slammed the provision, saying that using public money for private schools would "destabilize" Missouri's educational foundation and "open the floodgates to even more radical voucher schemes down the road."
Fellow Democrat Scott Sifton of Affton says there are parts of the bill he also disagrees with, but that vetoing it could further harm unaccredited school districts in St. Louis County and cast uncertainty over schools in Kansas City.
"My requests to the governor are threefold," Sifton said on the Senate floor. "One, please sign this bill…two, if you're not gonna sign this bill, please veto it quickly…and three, if you veto it, please call a special session immediately, so that we in Jefferson City can do all we can to address the situation as best we can in hopes that what happens in Kansas City at the start of the school year and through the summer is not a repeat of what my constituents, and the constituents of many other members of the St. Louis delegation, experienced this past summer."
St. Louis Public Radio asked Gov. Nixon on Tuesday if he would be willing to call a special session if he vetoes the student transfer bill. He said that it was too early to talk about a special session, but the governor added that he and his staff want to look at "all the options" if lawmakers are unable to arrive at a "solution."
Meanwhile, two African-American state senators are demanding that Nixon sign the school transfer bill into law. Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, says she understands the governor's objections to the private option, but that he's wrong in his analysis of the provision.
"This is not a school vouchers bill," Nasheed said during a press conference Wednesday. "This bill not only addresses the school transfer issue, (but) this particular bill deals with parental involvement, charter school accountability, and social promotions."
Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, told reporters that if the governor vetoes the student transfer bill he would be "turning his back on poor, black children and on education." The governor's office has not responded yet to requests for a comment.
Shortly after Nasheed and Chappelle-Nadal's press event, the Missouri NAACP released a statement condemning Senate Bill 493.
"Allowing transfer students to go to private, nonreligious schools with public education dollars is not a fix, it's a trampling of the public education demanded by our State Constitution," said Mary Ratliff, Missouri NAACP President.
Nasheed fired back, "It is extremely unfortunate that the nation's oldest black organization has come out against an education bill that tries to solve the problems of inadequate education opportunities for our state's African-American students."
The bill's main provisions include accrediting individual schools instead of a school district as a whole, and creating three regional authorities to oversee student transfers in Missouri -- one for the St. Louis region, one for the Kansas City area, and one for the rest of the state. It also repeals the required number of school days per year and instead requires students to attend at least 1,044 school hours per school year.
The school transfer measure is actually a combination of nine bills that contained various recommendations, some duplicated. They were merged together in February by the Senate's Education Committee.
Two key differences between the original merged bill and the final version moving through the Capitol this week are the aforementioned private option, and the lack of free transportation for transfer students. Earlier drafts would have required unaccredited school districts to cover the cost of taking transfer students to their new schools. But that requirement was removed from the final version, meaning that parents or guardians in Normandy and Riverview Gardens must bear the cost of taking their children to their new schools.
"It does certainly limit their options to transfer out of the district to another public school district like Kirkwood or Mehlville or Francis Howell," said state Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood. "We do have in (the bill) now the charter options and the private school option in their district, and if our goal is to try to keep students in the district but in a better educational environment, those two options are now there that I think will be helpful."
Meanwhile, the NAACP's Mary Ratliff condemned the removal of the transportation requirement in the final bill: "The fix denies transportation for the 2,200 children whom have transferred into higher-performing schools, and (it's) equated to child abandonment by the state and should be punishable by law."
The Missouri Senate passed the student transfer bill 28 to 3, with Democrats Jolie Justus of Kansas City, Jason Holsman of Kansas City, and Paul LeVota of Independence voting "no." However, LeVota indicated that he could possibly support an override effort if Nixon vetoes the bill.
Senate Bill 493 now goes to the Missouri House. The 2014 legislative session ends Friday at 6:00 p.m.
Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter: @MarshallGReport