State Senate votes to ease school accreditation-loss effects

Bill would allow state board to eliminate failing school districts

By Phill Brooks

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri’s Senate approved a measure Thursday that would restrict the rights of students to transfer out of unaccredited schools.

The measure comes in response to complaints from school districts in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas that they cannot handle the number of students seeking to transfer out of the unaccredited districts of Kansas City and Normandy in St. Louis County.

Before the Senate vote, Missouri’s education commissioner, Chris Nicastro, had warned the current transfer costs for unaccredited schools are not sustainable for the unaccredited districts because the unaccredited districts are required to pay the tuition costs charged by the receiving districts.

“If their home district goes bankrupt, if their home district can’t afford to pay their bills, that’s not good … so if we can keep that district afloat, if we can reduce the money that is leaving that district, then I think we’re all successful,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Dave Pearce, R-Warrensburg.

The measure would reclassify what constitutes an unaccredited school district and, in some cases, restrict transfers by students in failing schools to other schools within their own districts.

The Democrat’s key leader for the bill said that provision would allow students to attend accredited schools closer to home.

“It saves dollars and it keeps kids local and in their community,” said Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-St. Louis County.

But one of the five voting against the measure said it fails to address the biggest issues facing the state’s troubled schools.

“That is the jobless rate in the urban core, that is nutrition, that is domestic violence, that is the transit nature of families. That is the socio-economic conditions by which our citizens live in,” said Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City.

The bill would set up a process for managing transfers and would give the highest priority for available seats to the lowest achieving students when the transfer demand exceeds available classroom seats.

“This whole conversation is about the children who are most in need and giving them options,” said Chappelle-Nadal, who offered the amendment to give priority to the worst achievers.

Her amendment, however, came under criticism from Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph.

“Why are we rewarding the low-achieving student? I mean, is the student low achieving for sure not within the student’s control?”

The bill would also grant the State Board of Education power to eliminate failing school districts.

Under the act, if the State Board of Education and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education determine a district could not afford to finish the school year, the district would be prevented from starting in the fall and could be shut down altogether.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, sponsored the measure. He said it prevents situations like Normandy, which came to the legislature asking for $5 million to fund paying the tuition costs for its students transferring out of the district.

While easing the financial requirements for schools to pay tuition costs to public schools for student transfers, the bill adds a provision by which a school district could be required to pay some of the tuition costs of a student’s transferring to private school located within the district.

“We’re just trying to provide an additional local option, an additional local option that children and those families do not currently have,” said Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles County.

The fight to take out the funding for private school enrollment was led by Holsman, who said, “Are we fostering an environment where all kids have the chance to succeed when we’re giving money to private schools that have admission standards that say ‘we’re not going to take all kids?'”

The Senate stripped out of the bill a provision that would have removed tenure protection for teachers in unaccredited districts.

The action was supported by Pearce, whose committee had supported the idea. “It would be a disincentive for some teachers to possibly work in the toughest of those districts that are struggling because what assurances would they have they would have a job?” Pearce asked during the Senate debate.

“What would prevent a whole lot of people just saying this is going to be unfair, I’m going to leave and going to a neighboring building in my district. And who’s left to teach?”

Although the measure is designed for the unaccredited districts in the state’s two largest metropolitan areas, it could have significant effects on out-state rural districts in future years.

The measure changes the entire system of how the state Board of Education evaluates education services by school districts.

Rather than making an accreditation decision for an entire district, the board would be required to make a separate determination of accreditation for each “building” within the district.

And if a building, or school, within the district were unaccredited, it would trigger the right for students within that district to transfer to another school within the district, so long as space is available.

The Senate-passed measure uses the term “building” for the new accreditation process, although legislators say that actually means separate schools within a district.

The measure, approved on a 27-5 vote, now moves to the House.