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Government, Politics & Issues

Senator presents framework for changing student transfer law

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 11, 2013 - Preparing for a legislative session expected to make changes in Missouri’s student transfer law, state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal is drafting a bill designed to rebuild unaccredited districts, preserve gains made by those on the bubble and sustain those that are solidly in the accredited category.

Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, told some of the superintendents from school districts in her 14th senatorial district Thursday that she is trying to prevent a “domino effect” when tougher school evaluations starting in 2015 might push other districts into unaccredited territory.

Without revisions in the law that lets students who live in unaccredited districts attend schools in accredited districts nearby, she said, the effects of transfers will grow quickly.

“It’s Normandy and Riverview (Gardens) today,” she said. “It’s Jennings, U. City and Ferg-Flor tomorrow. After those districts, they’re coming to Ritenour, they’re coming to Pattonville.”

Underlying all of the provisions she has put together so far, Chappelle-Nadal said, is helping students attend good schools as close to their homes as possible.

She noted that proponents of school choice often overlook the fact that many students who choose to attend class away from where they live often don’t stay away very long.

“All of these pro-choice people talk about choice choice choice,” she said, “but culturally, many of our kids come back. If we don’t focus on rebuilding unaccredited districts or unaccredited schools, we are doing them a disservice.”

Costs for provisions currently in the bill are not likely to be large, she added. But whatever calculations are made will also have to include the cost of districts no longer having to pay the millions of dollars that Riverview Gardens and Normandy have had to pay under the transfer program so far this school year, and the $6.8 million in supplemental money that Normandy will need to avoid going broke in the spring.

What the plan includes so far

Key elements in her plan, which she emphasized is still being put together and needs contributions from some of the 10 school districts and 41 municipalities in her senatorial district, include:

  • Accredit not just school districts but individual schools, so a district that does not meet the standards for accreditation as a whole could still have schools that are seen to make the grade.
  • Let students in unaccredited districts attend classes in any accredited school in their home district.
  • Students who are denied such an intradistrict transfer may still transfer to a nearby accredited district, as they may now.
  • Students in unaccredited schools may transfer to non-religious private schools in their home district.
  • No district that is unaccredited or provisionally accredited may receive transfer students.
  • No district with a score of 75 percent or lower in its state evaluation would be required to accept transfer students. A score of at least 70 is required for full accreditation.
  • Students must prove they have lived in an unaccredited district for at least 12 months before applying for a transfer.
  • Districts would have the right to determine their desired class sizes.
  • A new Student Transfer Coordination Authority would be created to monitor the movement of students from unaccredited schools or districts.
  • Districts that are unaccredited, provisionally accredited or with more than 75 percent of their students receiving free or reduced-price lunches may institute a longer school day.
  • Charter schools would be classified in the same way that school districts are classified.

Reasons and realities

Chappelle-Nadal, who also is a member of the University City school board, said that the legislation has to be wide-ranging because of variety of issues that Missouri’s new system of school evaluation, known as MSIP5, will lead to when it is used to make accreditation determinations starting in 2015.

“This is a situation where we can either show we can roll our sleeves up and do hard work or let things continue the way they are,” she said. “But if we allow things to continue as they are right now, we are going to have a domino effect.”

Looking at three categories of schools, she said that she wants to make sure that unaccredited schools get better, provisionally accredited schools working toward full accreditation don’t get overwhelmed by an influx of transfer students and accredited districts are allowed to keep achieving at the high levels they have already attained.

“When we get into session,” Chappelle-Nadal said, “there will be some people who think a quick fix is OK. With this situation we’re in, there is no quick fix. There are multiple tiers of things we need to deal with simultaneously.”

By accrediting individual school buildings, she said, good work will be recognized and students will have more options for transferring near their homes. By allowing districts to set reasonable class sizes, officials will be able to demonstrate objectively whether they have room to accommodate transfers.

She said guidelines set by the Department of Elementary Education have not worked.

“What this transfer program has created is a mockery of what we call good education,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “We have classrooms now with 32 children, and that is within the guidelines of DESE. I’m saying DESE is wrong. I’m saying individual districts should be able to determine what an appropriate class size is.”

Unduly restrictive pupil-teacher ratios could be appealed to the state board of education, she said.

As far as allowing students in unaccredited schools to transfer to non-religious private schools in their home district, she said any constitutional problems with such a policy could be solved by having districts use only local tax money to pay the tuition, not state money.

In most cases, she said, private school tuition would be much less than the cost of sending a student to an accredited public school in another district.

Another provision in her plan would set the tuition that receiving districts set for transfer students to be no more than what the area school desegregation plan reimburses districts for, currently about $7,000. That would ease the financial burden on sending districts, she said.

One aspect of the plan on which she was adamant was that districts that are now unaccredited or provisionally accredited would not be allowed to accept transfer students. That way, they could concentrate on improving their MSIP5 score without having to deal with an influx of new students from a poorly performing district.

Asked whether that provision tends to protect districts perhaps at the expense of students who would want to go to a better school, even if it is in a provisionally accredited district, Chappelle-Nadal said she would question the wisdom of any family that would want to send a student to a provisionally accredited school.

“This is an issue I would fall on the sword for,” she said. “What we do not want to happen is the domino effect.”

Compromise needed

The transfer law, which was enacted in 1993, had gone largely unnoticed until a lawsuit filed by students living in St. Louis who wanted to attend school in Clayton. The law was ultimately upheld -- twice -- by the Missouri Supreme Court, but by then, the city schools had achieved provisional accreditation.

But the court's latest ruling, in June, set off a scramble by students in Normandy and Riverview Gardens who wanted to take advantage of the law and transfer to districts in neighboring counties. About 2,200 signed up to do so, though some have returned to their home districts.

The court ruling also prompted lawmakers to begin looking into ways the law could be modified. A House committee held hearings across the state last month, and a joint House-Senate education committee held a lengthy session in Jefferson City last week. Pre-filing of bills for next year's legislative session begins Dec. 1.

Chappelle-Nadal emphasized that she is not an educator but a legislator who has worked on school issues since she has been in state government. She acknowledged that she is coming to the transfer issue from what she called a liberal-pro-education-pro-teacher perspective, but she understands the give-and-take that lawmaking requires and is ready to negotiate with her colleagues in the Senate.

“We’re looking for that sweet spot,” she said, “that 70 percent. Seventy percent is much better than zero."

A big factor in finding that spot between what is ideal and what is practical is money. Given the fact that the legislation is still a work in progress, Chappelle-Nadal said, she did not have an estimate of what it might cost. But she realizes the state budget doesn't have a lot of flexibility.

“If we have a fiscal note that is millions upon millions of dollars,” she said, “it ain’t happening."

Sitting in kid-sized chairs in the library at Cool Valley Elementary School, superintendents from Normandy, Riverview Gardens and Ferguson-Florissant as well as representatives from University City and Pattonville schools viewed Chappelle-Nadal’s presentation.

They questioned some of the details in her plan, and she invited them to submit their suggestions and their priorities. But she also was frank about the approach she would have to take in Jefferson City after the first of the year and the opposition she expects to face in a Senate dominated by white, male, rural Republicans.

“In the 13 years I’ve been in Jefferson City,” she said, “this is the hardest issue I’ve ever faced. It’s going to take so much work and so much collaboration to get it right. The only reason why a measure would fail is because my colleagues failed to work to make it happen.

“I’m a black woman in the very white rural Senate. I’m trying to get as much as possible for schools in my district. That means I have to negotiate. I need to get to middle ground so we can move ahead and I can serve my population.”

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