With the Missouri legislature approaching its spring break, the Senate has passed a sweeping education bill designed to deal with struggling schools and transfers from unaccredited districts, and a bill addressing similar issues is ready for debate in the House.
At the same time, up the street from the Capitol, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has proposed a draft plan to map out when and how the state could intervene in schools at various stages of achievement – or lack of it. After gathering public comment on the plan in St. Louis and Kansas City last week, officials are expected to submit a final version of the proposal to the state board of education later this month.
At this point, everyone seems to agree on a few basic points.
- Instead of accrediting entire school districts, the state should accredit individual school buildings.
- Districts that receive transfer students should be able to limit class sizes and the number of students they have to accept.
- Unaccredited districts that send transfer students should have a cap on how much tuition they have to pay.
- Under certain conditions, students could even transfer to nonsectarian private schools that have the proper credentials.
The overarching principle that governs the bills and the plan is this: Students should be able to get a quality education in their own communities.
The flurry of activity to address issues that have been on the horizon for several years was prompted, of course, by the Missouri Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling last June to uphold a provision of a 1993 education law that lets students who live in unaccredited school districts transfer to nearby accredited ones.
The law’s requirement that transfer students’ home district must pay for tuition and in some cases transportation for those who leave has put a severe strain on the budgets in Normandy and Riverview Gardens, which along with Kansas City are the only three unaccredited districts in the state.
In Normandy’s case, the district was projected to go bankrupt around the first of April unless it received an emergency transfusion of state funds – first estimated at $6.8 million, then reduced to $5 million. The request for the added money was approved by the state board and forwarded to the legislature by Gov. Jay Nixon, but prospects for its approval initially seemed dim.
That situation changed, though, when the state board voted last month to put Normandy’s finances under the control of DESE. Commissioner Chris Nicastro assured students in the district that the move meant they could stay in their classrooms for the rest of the school year. The move also seemed to bolster the likelihood that lawmakers would approve the emergency money. This week, the House advanced a plan to send the money to DESE for use in Normandy as part of a supplemental spending bill .
Meanwhile, looking beyond the end of the current semester, the House and Senate are studying creative ways to ease the burden of the transfers, financial and otherwise, while creating the best possible chance to fulfill the goal of good schools for all Missouri children.
DESE is using a law passed last year that gave it greater latitude to intervene in struggling school districts to come up with more and better ways to detect problems and to prevent districts from sliding into provisional accreditation or total lack of accreditation.
In putting together its plan, it considered proposals from a variety of education groups and school districts as well as public comments from a series of meetings across the state.
Here is a look at the various issues involved and how they are being addressed by each chamber of the General Assembly, as well as the broader plan being put together by DESE.