Renewed efforts to change Missouri’s law on school transfers look pretty much the same as the bill vetoed earlier this year by Gov. Jay Nixon, but sponsors of the newly filed legislation say events in Ferguson have changed the atmosphere for the upcoming debate.
State Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, was first in line when pre-filing of legislation opened on Monday. His Senate Bill 1 is largely the same as the bill that won approval from lawmakers last year. He says students who live in unaccredited school districts still need help, and the protests that followed the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown have highlighted the inequities involved.
No matter where students live, Pearce said in an interview, “you have to have a good education. You have to have a good start in life. If they don’t have that, if they’re not getting a good education, if they drop out, that affects them for the rest of their lives.
“Education is right in the middle of that. That has got to be a part of the discussion when we go back to Jefferson City in January: What are some ways that we can strengthen our schools, give opportunities for youth and give them as many assets as possible when they graduate from high school?”
When he rejected the wide-ranging, 135-page bill passed by the General Assembly last session, Nixon cited two main reasons: a provision allowing public money to be used for students who wanted to transfer to nonsectarian private schools, and what he termed a “cynical bargain” that would let districts charging reduced tuition for transfer students not to count those students’ test scores in their evaluations for several years.
The bill’s margin of passage in the House was not large enough to override Nixon’s veto, so the transfer law that had been in place for more than 20 years remained. That allows students who live in unaccredited school districts to attend class in nearby accredited schools, with their home district paying tuition and in some cases transportation as well.
Some changes have occurred. The state dissolved the unaccredited Normandy school district, putting in place the Normandy Schools Collaborative that the state board of education classified as accredited as an oversight district. But the state board allowed Normandy students to continue to transfer under certain circumstances, and a St. Louis County Circuit Court judge has broadened that pool.
So those students, plus students in Riverview Gardens – now the only unaccredited district in the state, since Kansas City has regained provisional accreditation – are still allowed to transfer. Officials in both districts have said that continuing to pay the costs of the transfers is threatening their budgets.
What the proposed bills say
To ease that pressure, and to give students who live in struggling school districts as many options as possible, Pearce's legislation would make several changes. They include:
- Change the current transfer law so its provisions apply only to districts that have schools from kindergarten to 8th grade. Most such districts are in rural areas.
- Accredit individual school buildings, not just districts, and allow students in an unaccredited building to transfer to an accredited school within their home district, if the move does not violate state-recommended class size guidelines.
- Allow students who cannot transfer to a school within their home district to transfer to an accredited school in another district.
- Students could not transfer to unaccredited or provisionally accredited districts or schools.
- Transfers could also be made to a nonsectarian private school in a student’s home district if voters in the district approve such a change. If a district is unaccredited for three years, such transfers could occur without voter approval.
- Districts may establish policies for class size and would not be required to accept any transfer students who would violate that policy.
- If a district agrees to charge reduced tuition for receiving transfer students, it would not have to count those students’ test scores or other data in their performance reports for five years.
- Establish a “school transfer and improvement task force” within the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to focus on failing schools.
- Give the state board of education more power to lapse all or part of an unaccredited district.
- Create assistance teams to help underachieving school district.
- Expand opportunities to start charter schools in unaccredited districts.
Priority No. 1
Pearce said that by filing his bill first, he wanted to emphasize the importance of making sure lawmakers achieve changes in the transfer situation.
“I think that because it’s Senate Bill No. 1,” he said, “that shows on my part and I think for others that it is priority No. 1 when we come back to Jefferson City. So I hope that will bring good discussion and debate.”
But, Pearce added, he realizes that any pre-filed legislation is the starting point for a process of negotiation and debate. He also hopes that Nixon becomes involved in the give and take earlier and more actively than he did during this year’s session.
“Hope springs eternal,” he said. “I look forward to working with the governor and his staff and anybody on this issue. I went to get something done. I’m not going down to Jefferson City just to keep doing the same thing and expecting different results.”
State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, also pre-filed a bill similar to Pearce’s. She has been a frequent antagonist of Nixon, both in the school transfer debate and in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
But, she said in an interview, she’s not too concerned about what the governor is going to do this time around.
“At this point,” she said, “I don’t care what the governor has to say unless he’s willing to roll up his sleeves and do the hard work that so many legislators did the last two years…. If he wants to articulate what his plan is for minority communities, with education particularly, he may do so in a timely manner. But until he gets serious about the job that he has, I could care less….
“Even enemies have to work together. And even though the governor and I have a distaste for one another, I am still willing to work on behalf of all Missourians, and he should know that by now.”
Noting the overwhelming presence of Republicans in both chambers of the General Assembly, and the fact that Nixon is halfway through his final term as governor, she added: “He is a lame duck at this point, and there's a supermajority in the House, and there's a supermajority in the Senate. When that happens, you know, the mathematics change essentially.
“So he has literally an opportunity to make a significant change. I mean he really does have an opportunity to show that he's not so insulated that he is actually communicative. He has displayed many times that he doesn't communicate very well. But he has an opportunity.”
Chappelle-Nadal said that while the focus has been on Ferguson and on Normandy, where Brown graduated from high school earlier this year, it shouldn’t be on them alone.
“This is not a black-white issue,” she said. “It’s not a rural vs. urban issue. It’s not a Democrat vs. Republican issue. This is an issue that is very important for all.”
State Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, has pre-filed a more limited transfer bill that does not include the option to transfer to a private school.
“It is very important for us to get transfer reform done this year,” he said in an interview, “and the governor has made it very clear he is not going to sign any bill that includes public dollars going to private schools…. So I'm taking a different approach.
“We're all going to have to work together to find a new direction this year and hopefully come up with a transfer reform bill that is both palatable to the House and Senate on the one hand and to the governor on the other.”
Asked about the effect of Ferguson on the upcoming debate, Sifton said:
“Quality public education has been an important issue throughout region and throughout our state for some time. The notion that there are some school districts in our state that are not performing at a level to warrant accreditation is not new.
“This is a problem that has been with us for quite some time. We have failed to address it to this point, and it's very important that we address it now.”
With other legislation likely to be introduced before the session starts, and lively debate certain to follow – along with developments such as a new education commissioner and continued litigation over the rights of students to transfer – activity on the transfer front is certain to continue in the coming months.
And Chappelle-Nadal, for one, says the debate over Ferguson will definitely be part of the equation, adding: