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Missouri House and Senate give first-round approval to student transfer fixes

Marshall Griffin/St. Louis Public Radio
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Two bills to address Missouri's student transfer law won approval late Tuesday — one in each chamber of the legislature. Both would require accreditation of individual schools rather than whole districts and would set new transfer guidelines to prevent overcrowding.

The State Board of Education would also have the authority to lapse part or all of an unaccredited school district under both bills. Both Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 42 received first-round approval, also known as "perfection."

The House perfected its version of the proposal first, passing it on a mostly partisan vote of 112-44, which is a few votes more than needed to override a veto if Gov. Jay Nixon finds fault with it.

"We have one chance today, this year, to make a difference, to change the status quo, and to provide an opportunity for these children to get out of the vicious cycle that they've been in year after year after year," said state Rep. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia.  "It's not the silver bullet, it's not going to fix every problem, but I can guarantee you it's going to fix some of them."

Another provision would require school districts to transfer ownership of vacant buildings to any charter schools that ask for them at fair market value. Missouri Legislative Black Caucus chair Brandon Ellington, D-Kansas City, objected to that provision.

"If (you) truly want to work on it, you should work with people from the minority party, in particular, people that have these schools in their area," Ellington said. "That way, we can craft a plan that does not have the potential for victimizing people in that area by losing the buildings that their public dollars pay for."

Before the vote, an amendment was floated to cap the amount of tuition receiving school districts can charge unaccredited sending districts. It was sponsored by state Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills.

"This is supposed to be a transfer bill, and I'm just trying to help out with some certainty with (the Normandy school district) that was badly damaged (by) a law that was rolled out without a proper funding mechanism in there," Smith said.

However, Smith’s amendment was not adopted.

Senate Bill 1 perfected

Less than three hours later, the Missouri Senate perfected its version of the student transfer bill.

Much of the debate on SB1 focused on the expansion of virtual schools and how many students could transfer to online schools from an unaccredited district. Nixon vetoed last year's bill, SB 493, mostly because it would have allowed students in St. Louis, St. Louis County, and Jackson County to transfer to private, non-sectarian schools at the sending district's expense. After discussion between the Senate education committee and the Nixon administration, state Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, said he was told that Nixon would support the virtual and charter school expansion instead.

"The No. 1 thing he wanted (removed from) the bill this year was the private, non-sectarian (language)," Pearce said. "If we took that out, then he would entertain the expansion of charter schools and virtual schools, (and) that's exactly what we've done in this bill."

The unofficial agreement is summed up in an amendment to allow students in provisionally accredited or unaccredited districts, and those in districts with provisionally or unaccredited scores, to be able to transfer to virtual schools. Students would be able to transfer to another district or pursue the virtual or charter school option only after they filled the open slots for accredited schools in their current district.

Similar to the House version, SB1 does not force receiving school districts to accept lower rates for tuition from the sending district. The unaccredited district currently has to pay the transferring student's tuition and, in some cases, transportation costs. If passed, SB1 would require only unaccredited K-8 schools to cover transportation costs.

Also similar to last year, SB1 allows the receiving school district to determine the amount of tuition required. If the district were to charge 70 percent or less than the sending district's tuition, student scores would not be counted for five years. If the receiving district charged less than 90 percent, 10 percent of the tuition could be paid from a state fund for supplemental tuition.

State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, later successfully added an amendment that says students who join another school later in the year will be counted as only 30 percent of a student who has attended the school since Day 1. State Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, expressed concern with the amendment.

"We are saying that after a year in our school, we still don't believe we have had enough time with you, perhaps, to get you up to par and where you should be in whatever school district you're attending," Schupp said.

Both the Senate and House versions of the student transfer fix are expected to be voted on again before the end of the week, most likely on Thursday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Follow Marshall Griffin and Ray Howze on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport, @RayHowze

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.

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