With a new Missouri governor ready to take over, lawmakers are trying once again to solve an old problem: how students in unaccredited school districts can get the education they deserve.
Since the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the transfer law in 2013, students in unaccredited districts have had the right to enroll in nearby accredited districts, at the cost of millions of dollars to their home districts that had to pay tuition and in some cases transportation as well.
Now that Riverview Gardens has achieved provisional accreditation, Normandy is the only unaccredited district in the state, though Riverview who have transferred elsewhere will be able to stay in their new schools for a time. Bills filed in the Senate by Maria Chappelle-Nadal and Scott Sifton of St. Louis County and in the House by David Wood of Versailles want to change the terms of future transfers to balance the needs of students with the budgets of their home districts.
The goal, Chappelle-Nadal said in a recent interview, remains the same:
“I am committed to having a place for young people to go where they feel they can thrive and they feel they can be treated equally. Our young people will not be treated equally if they are not provided the basic foundation that the rest of society is provided.”
Sifton, who like Chappelle-Nadal filed a comprehensive bill similar to one that was vetoed ion n the past, said the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education needs more ways to help students succeed.
“You've got to have tools that these districts can use to help improve themselves,” he said. “DESE can help, but there are other approaches that need to be on the table, and that's what this legislation does. That's what this legislation has done in past years. We just haven't been able to get it signed yet.”
Twice since the transfers began, lawmakers have pushed through wide-ranging legislation that dealt with transfers and related issues. Twice, Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bills, and his rejections stood. In the wake of those battles, during this past legislative session no serious effort to change the transfer rules was mounted.
But next year could be different, with Republican Eric Greitens moving into the governor’s office. The bills likely to come up for debate in the House and Senate aren’t much different, but sponsors hope the outcome is.
“I think Gov. Greitens, from what I understand, is more open to the school choice and reform topics,” Wood said.
While Chappelle-Nadal and Sifton have filed multi-layered proposals dealing with topics from accreditation to transfers to graduation rates and student promotion, Wood has taken a more tailored, more targeted approach.
The Senate bills would curb the costs of transfers while making sure struggling districts and the remaining students get the help they need, early warning signs are heeded and families are kept informed when their students are falling behind.
Chappelle-Nadal’s bill, which is largely similar to ones she filed last year and the year before, includes a broad range of provisions.
When it comes to the advantages that transferring to a better school can bring, Chappelle-Nadal has her personal experience as a good example. Living in St. Louis, she was able to attend Clayton High School under the area’s voluntary desegregation program, and she knows the difference it made.
“I had a privilege,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of the people I represent do not have that privilege of going to the top school in the state.
“I want to make sure when a school becomes unaccredited, that child is able to go to a school and district that is fully accredited, when they do not have that option, then they can go to a neighboring school.”
She notes that even though Riverview Gardens has regained provisional accreditation, and Normandy has shown marked improvement, the problems that the transfer law was designed to address have not gone away.
“I am very excited and elated that Riverview has accreditation again,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “But we've been going through this cycle for three decades now, and who's to say that in five years we're not going to be in this same place.
“The laws that we have right now are from 1993, and we always thought we would not fall off the cliff when it came to accreditation. We finally did that.”
And she said that as she has dealt with another issue in her district, radioactive waste, she has seen that residents who did not have the advantage of a top-flight education have problems dealing with complex issues.
“I'm having to change my language so people can better understand how they are impacted,” she said, “which goes back to education.
“Not everyone had chemistry. I was able to have chemistry at Clayton High School. I don't know how well I did, but you understand the periodic table. You understand that with every action there's a reaction.”
Same issues, new players
Sifton notes that many of the issues in his bill have already won passage by lawmakers.
Though he is not sure how Greitens would view the provisions in his bill, he is sure they are still needed.
“To address the transfer issue,” he said, “I think you have to do it on several levels. That includes giving some of these unaccredited school districts additional tools to try to help get the job done.
“The reforms that are contained in my bill are designed to do that. We're talking about approaches that the legislature has repeatedly supported.”
Like Chappelle-Nadal, he doesn’t want to respond simply to the situation as it is now but wants to anticipate future scenarios.
“Don't get me wrong,” Sifton said. “It's a good thing that Riverview is reaccredited. ... We want to see every kid in Riverview thriving.
“You've got to do more than just address the issue of how you're going to handle transfers when you have them.”
Sifton said DESE has made some good moves in handling the situation brought by the transfer law, but more is needed: “The problems that many of these districts are experiencing were ignored for far too long, and the efforts to fix them are far too little far too late. We need to be doing more to help children in unaccredited districts and provisionally accredited districts succeed. If you're going to have transfers, there needs to be a process that makes sense for everybody.”
A more targeted approach
Wood’s bill in the House concentrates on the governance of a troubled school district and, like the Senate bills, on accreditation of individual buildings rather than districts as a whole.
It also places limits on the tuition that can be charged by districts or charter schools that receive transfer students.
In addition, it deals with limits on class sizes that could be affected by transfers and what happens if receiving districts lose accreditation or charter schools are no longer operating. And it establishes guidelines for when transfer students may remain in their new districts if their home districts regain accreditation.
A similar bill by Wood in 2015 was vetoed by Nixon after the Senate had added a variety of other provisions. He said he prefers the more limited approach again this time around and said that if his bill had remained intact, he thinks Nixon would have signed it last year.
He is particularly interested in putting into law an agreement among school districts that would let Riverview Gardens transfer students remain in their new districts until they reach a natural break in their education.
“I think that needs to be in place,” Wood said. “We need to protect them from the possibility that this could happen in the future.”
While he praised state education officials for how they have handled accreditation issues so far, Wood wants clearer direction for the future.
“They've done the best they could without the guidelines in statute,” he said. “So this would put those guidelines in place and make their decisions easier.”
So far, accreditation problems have been in Missouri’s big cities. “I think we need to stay focused on what's best for the students in the state of Missouri, and focus on an education system that is inclusive of charter schools, virtual schools, traditional public schools, where kids are learning and good things are happening,” Wood said.
So what will reach the finish line when the General Assembly adjourns? “It's a long journey from January to May,” Wood said. “And hopefully we'll come out with a good product at the end.”
Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger