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Lawmakers get an earful on how transfer law may be changed

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 1, 2013: JEFFERSON CITY -- For several hours Tuesday afternoon, members of the Missouri House and Senate heard suggestions on changing the law allowing students in unaccredited school districts to transfer.

Should the way tuition is calculated be changed? Should state education officials have more power to devise regulations for transfers? Should failing districts simply be dissolved, with their students distributed to nearby accredited schools? Should transfers be stopped, with attention paid instead to making sure unaccredited districts improve?

State Rep. Mike Lair, R-Chillicothe, chaired the hearing as head of the legislature’s joint committee on education. Lair opened the session in a packed hearing room in the basement of the Capitol by saying he wanted to avoid the contentious atmosphere that has characterized some sessions on the same topic.

Instead, he said, he wanted to hear “solutions that are innovative and out of the box” on an issue “that is paramount in the education of a large number of Missouri’s young people.”

What he got, from state education officials, superintendents of districts in the St. Louis area affected by the transfers and others, covered a wide range of possible reforms that lawmakers may take up when they reconvene in January.

But everyone involved appeared to agree with Chris Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education. She told the lawmakers that every solution they consider should ensure that every one of the state's nearly 1 million students has access to a quality education.

Given how long many schools have been failing, she added, fulfilling that promise isn’t going to be easy.

“This is a decades old problem,” Nicastro said. “This is not something that just appeared in June because of the Supreme Court decision. I think there’s a window here, because everyone is coming together and is so concerned about the crisis of the moment that it may give us an opportunity to create a truly innovative plan.”

She added later:

“We believe that simply moving children from one community to another is not a viable or a child-centered answer to a long-term problem. Children deserve to be educated where they live.”

Any solutions, she added, have to pay attention not only to the 2,200 students who left their home districts of Normandy and Riverview Gardens but to the students who remain.

With new superintendents in those districts, Nicastro said, improvements are already being made. Ty McNichols of Normandy and Scott Spurgeon of Riverview Gardens, both of whom took over as superintendent only on July 1 and had to deal immediately with the compressed transfer schedule, also told the lawmakers of the improved atmosphere and approach in their schools.

“The children remaining in Normandy and Riverview Gardens are getting a better education,” Nicastro said, “largely due to the leadership in both districts and an increased instructional focus.”

But McNichols, whose district is in danger of going broke by March without an infusion of funds because of the tuition and transportation costs for the transfer students, said besides additional resources, he needs more time to let the changes take hold.

“It took multiple years to get to this place,” McNichols said. “It’s going to take a few years to change it.”

Options from DESE

After running through the history of the transfer law and the guidelines that her department drew up to help districts work through the process, Nicastro told the senators and representatives they had three options: Let failing districts lapse, revoke the transfer law or come up with some other approach.

That new approach, she said, could include new authority for DESE under a law that took effect at the end of August, giving the state board of education new powers to intervene in unaccredited districts. She said legislation to give DESE more power over transfers, and new ways to calculate the tuition sending districts must pay to receiving districts, would also make the process fairer.

Deputy Commissioner Ron Lankford presented figures showing that a tuition payment of about $7,000 a student – similar to what students in the voluntary interdistrict transfer program pay but less than what many receiving districts are charging now – would be both appropriate and financially feasible for sending districts.

Had that amount been in force during this year’s transfers, he said, Normandy and Riverview Gardens would have saved about $5 million each, and “it might keep this from becoming an unsustainable situation.”

Besides the superintendents from Normandy and Riverview Gardens, those in charge of schools in Mehlville, Kirkwood, Francis Howell and Ferguson-Florissant -- all heavily involved in the transfer process as receiving districts – also discussed possible changes.

Spurgeon told lawmakers he would like to see students be enrolled in their home districts for at least three years before they would be allowed to transfer.

One of the few sharp exchanges during the session came when state Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, noted to Spurgeon that during his career, he has heard many superintendents pledge improvements in their districts’ performance, but most of the time those prognostications have not come true.

“Why should I believe you when I’ve heard the same stories from superintendents repeatedly for the past eight years?” he asked Spurgeon.

Spurgeon’s response was that rather than pay attention to what he had to say, “just watch our actions.”

Mehlville superintendent Eric Knost noted that the 216 students his district has received have adjusted well, but he urged the lawmakers to make the process smoother and less political.

“It’s insane to have your first day of school, arguably the most important day of the year, clouded by threats of litigation that clearly put students in the middle,” he said, recalling the atmosphere that accompanied the start of school in August.

Problems with failing schools won’t be solved, he added, until students have a choice among good options.

“Every single student needs multiple champions,” he told the legislators, “and every single student needs positive relationships, and they shouldn’t have to be bused 30 miles to find someone who cares ….

“Pick up the cause for a child’s right to stay put.”

One issue that came up several times is the situation where families reportedly have moved into Normandy or Riverview Gardens just this year to gain the opportunity to transfer to another district.

State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, told Nicastro that such a situation, or having students who live in the unaccredited districts but have not attended school there also sign up to transfer, has been a big drain on Normandy and Riverview Gardens.

Spurgeon said he had 238 students sign up to transfer who had never been in his district’s schools.

Calling such a situation a “loophole,” Nasheed said:

“That’s a massive problem I haven’t heard any of you discuss …. What they are doing is playing the system.”

Nicastro replied that while such a situation may seem unfair, it could only be changed if the law is changed.

“No one could find any legal basis for denying any child who is a resident of the sending district to participate in the transfer program,” she said.

In the end, Nicastro told the lawmakers, all Missourians have to worry about the solutions to the problems posed by failing schools.

“This is not a problem with the kids,” she said. “This is a problem with the adults.

“I would suggest every adult in Missouri has a piece of this. If we do not work together on how to solve this problem long term, we’re going to be sitting here again next year talking about the same issue with another group of people.”

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