As planning begins for school transfers in the St. Louis area in the academic year that starts in August, and Missouri lawmakers return to Jefferson City for the new legislative session, one issue will loom large for both groups:
What changes, if any, will come to the transfer law that has dominated so many headlines, discussions and school board meetings in recent months?
Plenty of proposals have been advanced in the run-up to the 2014 session of the General Assembly, both by education groups and by the legislators who will have the final say. But school bills have had a tough time winning passage by lawmakers in recent years.
Still, the attention that the transfers have generated – and the bipartisan efforts they have prompted – could change that. So far, only students from Normandy and Riverview Gardens have transferred – about 2,000 in the first semester – but Kansas City may be the next district affected, making the issue more urgent on the western edge of the state.
State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, one of several lawmakers who have filed legislation to change the transfer rules, said that making the right changes is what is important.
“We need some reforms,” she said, “but they have to be balanced. If we do nothing, that’s terrible. But if we keep kids in a district where they are, that’s not going to be a good thing either. We need to allow for options and we need to make sure the proper resources are there.”
Her Senate colleague Eric Schmitt, a Glendale Republican, noted that he and others from both parties have filed identical bills addressing a number of issues around the transfers, trying to address two principles: giving receiving districts some control over how many students they must accept but giving students in unaccredited districts opportunities to get a better education.
“By no means do any of us believe that this is a final product,” he said. “We certainly welcome input. But we felt we owed it to everybody we represent to do everything we could to put ideas forward and get the ball rolling.”
The issues involved are wide-ranging:
- What changes can be made to let students get a good education closer to where they live?
- Should there be a cap on how many transfer students accredited districts have to accept?
- Should there be a cap on how much tuition unaccredited school districts have to pay for each student who transfers?
- Should individual schools, rather than entire districts, be accredited?
- What role should charter schools or private schools play in the mix of choices?
- If struggling schools institute longer days or longer years to help students improve, who will foot the bill?
- Will the cash-strapped Normandy district even make it to the end of the current school year?
And the biggest overall question: When the legislative session ends in May, what options will students who attend underachieving schools have to get a better education?
Kate Casas, state policy director for the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, says she’s “optimistic that people will be able to set aside their own agenda and get something done for kids. But May is a long way away, and it’s hard to predict exactly what will happen.”
Looking backward -- and ahead
Better education, of course, was the goal when the transfer provision was written into a sweeping school reform law in 1993. Those who were around back then have said that the transfers were such a drastic step, they thought districts would do everything they could to avoid them.
But through several versions of the Missouri School Improvement Program, standards were revised to become more rigorous, and along the way several districts lost their accreditation.
That list once included St. Louis public schools, prompting parents who live in the city to force the transfer issue. By the time the Missouri Supreme Court ruled unanimously last June that the law was constitutional, setting off a flurry of activity to set up the logistics for the transfers, the city schools had been granted provisional accreditation, leaving only Normandy, Riverview Gardens and Kansas City on the unaccredited list.
Kansas City has filed suit to block transfers after the high court ruled last month that it, too, should be covered by the law. So lawmakers on both sides of the state – as well in rural areas, where some districts are teetering on the edge -- have become keenly interested in possible changes that could ease the financial, academic and other effects of the law.
What those changes might look like remains to be seen. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which held two hearings each in Normandy and Riverview Gardens in November and December, has commissioned a privately funded study of the Kansas City schools from CEE-Trust that is expected to make recommendations.
Chris Nicastro, the state’s education commissioner who has come under fire for the way the CEE-Trust contract was awarded, has emphasized that the results from the Kansas City study will be considered along with other proposals to formulate a plan from DESE.
“All plans, reports and recommendations will receive careful consideration,” she wrote recently. “No final ‘plan’ yet exists.”
DESE’s proposal is expected in February or March. By that time, bills filed by members of both parties and plans put forth by a variety of education groups will have been in play for weeks, subject to the usual combination of political, educational, financial and other forces at work in Jefferson City.
Lawmakers present their plans
But it’s unclear how far the discussion may get, particularly because House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, says he is satisfied with the law the way it is. In a statement released Tuesday, Jones said:
"To those who say the current transfer law, which was passed by a Democrat-controlled General Assembly many years ago and recently upheld by our Supreme Court, is unfair, I ask what is unfair about allowing a child the opportunity to leave a failing school district for one where they have the opportunity to receive a better education? This is a policy we all should support in a nonpartisan fashion as we work to do what is best for our young people."
Still, his legislative colleagues and others are actively trying to change things. Here are what some of them had to say on the issues at hand:
The House Interim Committee on Education:
After conducting hearings throughout the state, the committee released its report last month, calling for a uniform tuition to be charged by districts that receive transfer students. Currently, those districts have a wide range of tuition, from nearly $20,000 in Clayton down to about $8,400 in Mehlville.
Given that spread, the committee report said, a more uniform tuition:
“...would also help eliminate penny-wise and pound-foolish decisions such as selecting a more distant district to receive students based on a drastically lower tuition. At this point, with large-scale transfers in process and pending, it is clear that the sending district cannot make fiscal plans with any level of confidence when tuition can vary by nearly 100 percent.”
On one of the other issues that prompted a lot of discussion over transfers, the committee said that receiving districts “need some control over their circumstances, such as designating available seats, based on a consistent rationale.”
To help avoid the poor academic achievement that leads to transfers, the panel said the state should have more and better tools to intervene when districts are struggling academically, emphasizing what it called “the idea of shared responsibility for academic improvement.”
A Bipartisan Bill From the Senate:
That notion is also a key part of a bipartisan bill filed by a group of senators, including Republicans Eric Schmitt of Glendale, Scott Rupp of Wentzville, John Lamping of Ladue and Brian Nieves of Washington and Democrats Scott Sifton of Affton and Gina Walsh of Bellefontaine Neighbors.
It has several provisions, including:
- Allowing boards in unaccredited districts to sponsor charter schools.
- Accrediting individual schools separately from districts as a whole.
- Giving receiving districts more latitude in figuring how many students they can accommodate.
- Creating a clearinghouse to coordinate transfers in the St. Louis area.
- Letting unaccredited districts adopt longer school days and longer school years.
State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City
Chappelle-Nadal filed her own legislation, co-sponsored by state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, that has some similar provisions but goes further in a few respects, particularly in paying more attention to rebuilding the districts that have lost accreditation.
It calls for students in unaccredited schools to try first to transfer to an accredited school in their own district. If that isn’t possible, such students could transfer to a school in a nearby district, as they may now, or to a nonsectarian private school in their district.
If a receiving district cannot enroll all students who want to attend, priority would be given to the lowest achieving students from low-income families.
Chappelle-Nadal – who said her experience on the U. City school board has given her a special perspective on the issues involved – also wants to limit tuition for transfer students to the same amount in effect for the voluntary interdistrict transfer program, which is $7,200 for the current school year.
And she wants to pay attention to a situation that is a big problem in struggling districts – transient students, those who move from place to place and often don’t have the chance to build a solid academic foundation.
“Traditional residential students are much different from those who have been in a district for less than three years,” she said.
Education groups weigh in
Lawmakers weren’t the only ones with blueprints about how the transfer law might change.
Plans from EducationPlus – the organization formerly known as Cooperating School Districts – and a similar group that is statewide, the Missouri Association of School Administrators, also spelled out how they would like to see the process altered.
The EducationPlus plan stressed 10 key ideas, including:
- An emphasis on keeping local control
- Widespread changes at schools that are underperforming
- Recognition of the link between poverty and poor academic achievement
- Help from accredited schools for unaccredited ones
- More attention to full and fair funding for Missouri education.
The group and its executive director, Don Senti, have long maintained that school choice by itself does not guarantee improved academic outcomes. Its position paper puts the issue this way:
“Transferring students from one location to another does not improve schools nor does it revitalize communities. Bold action, empowered leaders, strengthened communities and solid support of public education will make outcomes better for all.”
The plan from the statewide school administrators group mirrors the EducationPlus plan in many respects. Its centerpiece is a new four-level plan for accrediting schools:
- Provisionally accredited
- Academically stressed, and
The last two categories would be new. The plan calls for academically stressed schools to be assigned to a new statewide School Achievement District that would begin intensive intervention to improve student learning before control of such schools return to a local district.
If such schools did not demonstrate sustained growth within five years, they would move to the lapsed category, and their students and physical property would be transferred to another district.
Some critics of the plan have noted that by changing terminology to “academically stressed” instead of the current “unaccredited,” the current law that calls for students living in unaccredited districts to be able to transfer could be sidestepped altogether.
Asked whether that result was part of the reason for the change, Roger Kurtz, executive director of the association, said the proposal is modeled after action taken by the state board of education in 2006 concerning the Wellston school district, which was later dissolved.
Kurtz said in an email that the state board “used an interim accreditation status to stop student transfers out of the Wellston School District because the transfers were bankrupting the district.”
Taking issue, and a different approach
Two groups that have found fault with the administrators’ plan are the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri and the Missouri Charter Public School Association. They say the proposal lets students languish too long in failing schools and limits their choices for a better education.
They prefer establishment of a statewide Missouri Achievement District, along the lines of what exists in Tennessee and Louisiana, that would report to the state school board and take over operations of unaccredited schools. Their approach would allow students to continue to transfer out of poorly performing schools if they prefer, but it would also spur creation of more charter schools that would allow students to remain closer to home if they preferred.
“The important point is it’s keeping the schools in the community,” says Doug Thaman, executive director of the charter school group. “For a school to be successful, you have to have engagement by parents and engagement by the community.”
He’d like to see legislation that would allow charter schools to be established in unaccredited districts more quickly.
“When you have so many children who really need some options,” Thaman said, “being able to expedite that timeline where charter schools could open the following year would be really helpful, so that those not interested in the transfer option could actually send their kids to school in their community.”
The overall goal, added Casas, state policy director for CEAM, is to make sure there are plenty of seats available in quality schools for students who need them.
“Expanding school choice would be at the top of my list,” she said. “The transfer program is not necessarily school choice. It’s more of a choice than many kids had before June 11, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it school choice.”