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Lawmakers ponder changes to Missouri school transfer law

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon As parents in Riverview Gardens and Normandy are looking around for the best accredited school district for their children to attend this fall, lawmakers are pondering what changes, if any, they might make to the school transfer law next year.

Though Rep. Mark Parkinson, R-St. Charles, has asked Gov. Jay Nixon to call a special session to deal with the transfer law, action is most likely to take place when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. At issue is the law, upheld last month by the Missouri Supreme Court, allowing students who live in unaccredited school districts to transfer to nearby accredited ones, with their home district paying the tuition.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has released guidelines advising accredited districts to come up with admissions policies in case more students seek to transfer there than they have space available. But state law says nothing about districts’ being able to limit the number of incoming transfers, and the issue is one of the big areas where some lawmakers think clarity is needed.

“Right now, districts cannot turn anybody away,” said state Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, who has worked on the transfer situation in previous legislative sessions. “The way the law was written, and the way the court has ruled, districts cannot say that. They will be overwhelmed, perhaps with thousands of students coming from unaccredited districts.

“I think DESE is hoping the legislature is going to enact new legislation that will clarify how many new students can come out.”

The concern, Stream said, is that districts that already are full and want to maintain their current class sizes will either have to build new facilities or make classes larger than they want them to be.

“We either need to fix the law so districts are protected and can say we will only take a certain number,” he said, “or if we don’t get something in place legislatively, we’ll have districts taking students that will make class sizes larger, will make them hire more teachers or get trailers, things like that. That’s one option most districts are not in favor of, and I don’t favor it either.”

Stream and other lawmakers in the Webster Groves and Kirkwood area met Tuesday to discuss possible actions that could be taken to limit accredited districts from accepting more students than they have room for but at the same time maximize the opportunity for students who live in unaccredited districts to attend quality schools.

Lawmakers have been studying possible changes to the law since the state Supreme Court first upheld the transfer provisions with a ruling in 2010, three years after parents from St. Louis filed suit seeking its enforcement. But no revisions won passage, in part because lawmakers were waiting to see how the legal cases were decided.

The case went from the Supreme Court back to St. Louis County Circuit Court, where Judge David Lee Vincent struck the law down, but the court upheld it once again last month.

A flurry of activity

Since the case began, the St. Louis city schools have regained their accreditation, but three other districts in the state – Riverview Gardens and Normandy in north St. Louis County as well as Kansas City – remain unaccredited. With most area schools starting in August, the court’s recent ruling set off a flurry of activity of parents seeking to enroll their children in accredited districts and districts seeking guidance on how they should deal with transfer applications.

State Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, noted that because for most suburban districts, the largest share of funding comes from local taxes, districts should not be put into a position in which they would have to fund new facilities to house students who come from elsewhere.

“What space is available has to be part of the discussion,” he told the Beacon. “That’s going to differ district by district. Some are growing and don’t have a lot of space right now. Those receiving districts ought to be given payments from the state so those taxpayers are made whole.”

He agreed that the way the law is written, districts may not be able to say no to a student who wants to transfer.

“I’m sure that is going to be subject to a legal challenge down the road,” Schmitt said. “Our job as legislators next year will be to talk about what districts have how much space available. That’s where the discussion has been, and that’s where the discussion probably will be next year.”

State Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, wants to make sure that whatever legislative changes are made address the overall academic situation, not just the concerns of a few districts.

“We need to look at the big picture here,” he said. “This is an opportunity to provide good education for all of the kids in the metropolitan area. That’s going to be a long discussion that we need to have.

“We don’t need to pass something haphazardly. We need to figure out the best way to provide every child in the state a quality education. I’m open to all viewpoints, but the end result has to be about the big picture. It’s not about putting your finger in the dike.”

Parkinson’s objection to the law centers on the fact that Normandy has designated the Francis Howell school district in St. Charles County as the one to which it would pay transportation costs for students transferring out of Normandy. He said in a statement Tuesday that the Supreme Court’s “wrong-headed” ruling will hurt the education of Francis Howell students.

Another Republican representative from St. Charles County, Chrissy Sommer, expressed similar sentiments Wednesday, saying:

“I have some very grave concerns regarding the cost to taxpayers, transportation around the district for incoming students, and the acclimation of students going from one school district to another.  And this does not even address all the concerns that parents from all affected districts may have in reference to this situation including after school activities and community involvement.  I want to make sure our children get the very best education possible while saving money for the taxpayers.  My concern is that with larger classroom sizes and school districts covering tuition cost and busing, there will be less money spent per student and more money wasted at the taxpayer’s expense and, in this case, without the say or consideration of the taxpayer.

“Also, I’m concerned about children who come into the school district and what learning level they are on at the time.  What becomes of the student who may be in fifth grade but is really at a third grade level and what comes of the children who are learning at an accelerated rate?  It takes time for children to get acclimated if they move from one school district to another.”

State Sen. Scott Rupp, R-St. Charles County, told the Beacon that he doesn’t necessarily expect any proposed revisions to the transfer law to pass.

“I don’t think the legislature will come in and try to change this, especially when the school districts and the education establishment has been resistant to so much reform,” he said.

“Now that they want something, they want the legislature to act, but they’re still refusing to change their hold on the bureaucracy and allow more reforms to take place in education. I don’t see anybody jumping up and trying to change something that only a few school districts want, when they still refuse to embrace reforms that have worked all over the country.”

On the other side of the aisle, state Rep. Tommie Pierson, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors – a former president of the Riverview Gardens school board – is concerned about the financial impact on unaccredited districts that have to pay tuition for students transferring to accredited schools.

“I don’t even know if the transfer is going to give them a better education,” Pierson said. “What I’m thinking about is the money the district has to spend. You could bankrupt the district.

“If all of the money follows the students, I don’t see how that district is going to survive financially.”

He also isn’t sure that parents who might rush to arrange transfers for their students will be happy with the outcome.

“A lot of these parents are going to be in for a rude awakening when their kids go to a different district and think they are automatically going to learn without the parents’ participation,” Pierson said.

“If they send them to any other district that is fully accredited, but they don’t participate, it’s going to be the same old thing.”

Does he have much hope that the legislature will come up with reasonable changes to the transfer law next year?

“Jefferson City is a different kind of animal,” he said. “There are a lot of varying opinions, and a lot of it is territorial. People are often protecting their turf and not looking out for the state as a whole.”

On Wednesday, House Speaker Tim Jones announced the creation of the House Interim Committee on Education and selected two retired educators,  Republicans Steve Cookson of Poplar Bluff and Lyle Rowland of Cedarcreek, to serve as chairman and vice chairman respectively. Jones said they duo will use their years of education experience to help the committee find common ground for potential education reform efforts. 

Legislative changes to the transfer law have not been a top priority, but they have been proposed in the past. In 2011, and again in 2012, Cooperating School Districts – which is acting as the clearinghouse now for transfer applications – worked to pass changes designed to ease the effect on receiving districts.

The group’s 2012 legislative agenda included these proposed changes:

  • The accredited district must maintain the ability to set appropriate class sizes and leave sufficient space to accommodate growth within the district.
  • The accredited district must retain discretion to assign transferring students from unaccredited districts to the schools of the accredited district’s choice.
  • The accredited district must not be required to employ additional teachers or construct additional classrooms to accommodate transferring students.
  • Students wishing to transfer must have been enrolled in the unaccredited school district for at least one school year prior to the transfer.
  • If the unaccredited school district gains provisional or full accreditation, transfer students must return to their home district.
  • The rate of tuition to be charged to the sending district is the tuition rate of the receiving accredited district. All costs should be paid in advance directly by the state.
  • Accredited districts that receive transfer students from unaccredited districts should not be required to include transfer students’ statewide assessment scores in their district’s scores for three years.

Jo Mannies contributed information to this story.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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