Bipartisan coalition of state senators unites to address student transfer law

Mehlville administrators, board members discuss student transfers with legislators

By Gloria Lloyd

As the Missouri Legislature convenes this week, area elected officials said they are looking for a legislative fix to transfers from unaccredited school districts and hope that the rest of the state gets on board, too.

As a step toward a compromise they hope can gain support from the full General Assembly, a bipartisan coalition of all nine senators from the region collaborated on a transfer compromise bill they submitted ahead of the start of the legislative session, agreeing that an imperfect solution is better than no agreement.

“We will continue to work together for the entirety of our legislative session until we can get this across the finish line,” Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, said as the senators unveiled the plan last month in Clayton. “We heard from folks that their expectation was that we would get out in front of this and work on this, and that is what we’re attempting to do.”

As proposed, the bill would allow either unaccredited or accredited districts to run charter schools inside unaccredited districts.

That aspect of the bill may not gain traction in the Legislature, said Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, the only senator in the state who represents two districts chosen to receive transfer students, Mehlville and Kirkwood.

“Whether (a solution is) charters or whatever else, I hope we can all agree that a dollar is better spent in a classroom than on gas,” Sifton told fellow legislators, school district administrators and board members at Mehlville’s Dec. 19 legislative meet-and-greet event. “And right now we have a law that is going to cause us to spend a lot of money on gas in this region in the next 10 years, particularly if current assessment performance holds in other, much larger districts.”

The St. Louis regional delegation’s bill is one of the most high-profile plans submitted so far, along with a plan supported by the state’s superintendents.

The Department of Secondary and Elementary Education, or DESE, will receive a report from a consultant this month and submit its own recommendations on transfers to the Legislature next month.

With the Normandy School District asking for millions of dollars in the next few months to avoid bankruptcy from paying the high costs of transfers, some legislators are expected to discuss tuition caps to address disparities in tuition among receiving school districts.

Tuition caps are not part of the senators’ plan. The superintendents’ plan calls for the state to pay the difference in tuition to districts with a higher cost.

“We know the caps will be discussed at some point. Who’s to say that the money that’s saved in other parts of the state isn’t used to offset the districts financially here?” said Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue. “Here the transferring districts have a lower cost than some of the receiving districts, but in Kansas City, it’s the exact opposite.

“In that situation, every child that fans out from the Kansas City Public School District to the receiving district, they save $3,000 or $4,000.”

In past sessions, legislation to address pending school transfer scenarios lacked urgency among legislators because the Supreme Court had not yet ruled. Bills failed because they were often attached to other ideas for school reform, like charter schools and teacher tenure, said Rep. Marsha Haefner, R-Oakville.

Haefner told the Call that she hopes the Legislature will approve a separate bill that just addresses the current transfer situation and not other issues.

But once the Legislature has done that, it also needs to look at the larger problem of fixing education in unaccredited districts, Haefner said.

“Once we resolve the short term, we really do need to take the aerial view of education in general and find some real solutions that have worked in other states,” she said. “I look at this from the perspective of, if we don’t fix our schools, we don’t fix a lot of things wrong in our society today.”

Haefner views fixing the state’s educational system in ailing districts as a public safety issue, noting that more than 40 percent of Missouri’s prison population attended school in only three of the state’s school districts — St. Louis Public Schools, Normandy and Kansas City Public Schools, which are all either unaccredited or provisionally accredited.

Like the previously announced plan put forth by superintendents across the state, the senators’ legislation proposes to accredit districts by individual schools rather than by district and prioritize transfers to accredited schools within a student’s own district.

Under the senators’ bill, if an accredited school was not available to a student in his or her district, the student could then transfer out if the receiving district has space according to its class-size policy and remain in that new district even if the students’ own district gains accreditation.

The superintendents’ plan would halt any further transfers out of the district, while allowing current transfers to remain until graduation.

After meeting with Mehlville Superintendent Eric Knost, who helped write the superintendents’ plan, Haefner said she supports many aspects of that plan, including accrediting individual schools and class-size policies.

The latter is a guideline previously established by DESE, but is not yet a part of state law.

That could be a problem for any district following those class-size guidelines if anyone ever challenged the application of the law in court, Sifton noted, calling it one of his top goals this year to pass those guidelines into law.

At Mehlville’s legislative meet-and-greet, Knost agreed that class-size policies are key.

But the superintendent noted that critics of them point out that enforcing DESE’s state guidelines on class size could effectively void the intent of the school transfer law, since most school districts exceed DESE’s recommended class sizes.

Still, Haefner agrees that enforcing class-size policies is a key to ensuring that districts that are already giving students a good education can continue to do so.

“I don’t think that the solution should be at the expense of what’s working for our children in a district like Mehlville that does amazing things and is very good at how it spends our precious tax dollars,” she said. “We can’t lower the bar in accredited districts for them to fix the problem in unaccredited districts.”