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Two Bills Will Have Broad Impact On Missouri Students – If They Become Law

school buses
Mo. Gov. Jay Nixon announced the release of funds for public school busing today. (via Flickr/wheany)

Updated at 9:35 a.m. Monday with clarification on tuition rates, link to final bill text.

Two bills passed by Missouri lawmakers this week would have a significant impact on how and what students in the state are taught – if the legislation escapes a veto by Gov. Jay Nixon.

And that doesn’t include the financial impact the governor says will occur because of the tax-cut bill that the House and Senate passed into law over his veto earlier this month.

The first bill, Senate Bill 493, changes how transfers by students in unaccredited school districts will be handled, starting this fall. But it goes far beyond that particular issue, adding sections on charter schools, parent involvement, promotion of students who aren’t reading at grade level, online tutoring and more.

The final bill passed by votes of 28-3 in the Senate and 89-66 in the House – not a large enough margin in the House to override a veto from Nixon. While the governor has not specifically said he would veto the bill, he has expressed strong reservations over a provision to give students the option of transferring to a non-sectarian private school.

The second bill, House Bill 1490, rolls back Missouri’s adoption of Common Core standards that it had approved along with most other states. Instead, the bill would require a new process for development of school standards that individual districts would use as a guide for their own locally adopted curriculum.

Here’s a summary of what is in each piece of legislation that now awaits action by Nixon.

Transfers and more

Almost from the moment last June that the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the 20-year-old law that allows students living in unaccredited school districts to transfer to nearby accredited schools, lawmakers and others called for changes in the bill.

The financial impact of the law quickly became clear: Normandy needed an emergency appropriation to make it to the end of the school year, and Riverview Gardens, though its budget was not affected so severely, was also feeling the strain of having to pay for tuition, and in some cases transportation, for about 2,200 who decided to take advantage of the transfer option.

For districts that received the transfers, concerns arose immediately over class sizes and whether they had any discretion over how many students they could accept before saying their schools were full.

Everyone involved said their overriding goal was making sure that all students had immediate access to a quality school. But the details of making that happen led to prolonged, sometimes intense debate.

Where the original transfer law – part of a comprehensive school package passed in 1993 – was just two brief paragraphs, the final bill this year ran to 135 pages, covering a wide range of topics.

The far-reaching bill includes these mandates:

-- TRANSFERS: Students who took part in the transfer program for the current school year would be allowed to take part in the coming school year. If an unaccredited district regains provisional or full accreditation, students would be allowed to continue to transfer until they complete middle school or high school, if they maintain their original residence. Students who did not attend a public school in the unaccredited district for at least one semester before transferring would not be able to continue in the transfer program.

Besides accrediting school districts, state officials will also have to determine accreditation levels for individual school buildings. Students attending an unaccredited school in an unaccredited district for at least one semester could transfer to an accredited school in the same district, but such transfers could not result in overly large classes, as determined by the district.

If there is no room at an accredited school in the same district, students may transfer to accredited schools in nearby districts, but districts that are unaccredited or provisionally accredited may not accept transfer students. Receiving districts may establish policies for acceptable class sizes.

Students who have been suspended from school two or more times or suspended for an act of school violence in the most recent school year may be denied the opportunity to transfer.

Credit (Flickr/Andrew Magill)
The student transfer bill gives receiving districts several alternatives on how much tuition they may charge.

-- TUITION: Receiving districts could not charge tuition that is greater than its per-pupil expenditures for resident students. Receiving districts may charge less than that amount.

If they charge less than 90 percent of the rate of the receiving district, the remaining 10 percent would be paid from a newly created state supplemental tuition fund. If they charge 70 percent of the sending district's rate, the test scores and other performance data for transfer students would not be used for five years in calculating the receiving district’s performance score for accreditation purposes.

-- TRANSPORTATION: Unlike the current situation, where unaccredited districts designate one or more receiving districts to which they would pay transportation – Francis Howell for Normandy, Mehlville and Kirkwood for Riverview Gardens – the new bill says the sending district may provide transportation for transfer students but is not required to do so.

-- PRIVATE SCHOOLS: For St. Louis, St. Louis County or Jackson County, students in an unaccredited school in an unaccredited district, after being enrolled for at least one semester, may transfer to a non-sectarian private school in their district, with their home district paying the tuition.

The tuition may not be more than the lesser of either the private school’s tuition or 70 percent of the unaccredited district’s tuition. Funds for tuition must come from the district’s local operating levy, and the option for students to enroll in a private school must be approved by voters in the district. But if a district is unaccredited for three years, transfers to a private school do not require such approval.

Private schools could receive such students only if they are accredited and administer statewide tests in English and math, or the equivalent, and provide data to the state for an annual performance report. If transfer students make up 25 percent of the total enrollment of a private school, it must conform to all standards of the Missouri School Improvement Program.

-- ACCREDITATION: The state board of education may not classify a district as unaccredited or reclassify an accredited district as provisionally accredited if no member of the board lives in the congressional district in which the affected school district is located.

-- SCHOOL TRANSFER AND IMPROVEMENT TASK FORCE: Within the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, a task force would be created to address failing schools, including a school improvement district; develop options for transfer finance formulas; and create pilot projects using best practices to help transient students. It must make recommendations to the legislature by Feb. 1, 2015.

Credit (via Flickr/evmaiden)
The transfer would allow the state board of education to lapse a failing school district.

-- STATE INTERVENTION: The state board of education may lapse all or part of an unaccredited school district. It may appoint a member of its elected board as part of a special administrative board, but such membership must be fewer than half of the SAB’s membership. Such boards are authorized for three years, but their authority may be extended.

If the state board feels a district will not provide education as state law requires, it may, before a school year begins, lapse that district’s organization. But – in an apparent reference to the future of Normandy – it may not use this power for a district solely because the district has experienced financial difficulty from payments for transfer students.

-- TRANSIENT STUDENTS: Each year, the state must calculate and publish on its website the ratio between transient students and resident students for each district and each school. In a transient student’s first year, his or her score on statewide tests will not be included when calculating the status or growth score from a district’s annual report. In the second and third years, such scores will be weighted at 50 percent, then 100 percent, respectively.

-- CHARTER SCHOOLS: The board of an accredited district or a combination of boards of such districts may sponsor charter schools in unaccredited school districts. Also, high quality charter schools, as defined in the bill, will be able to take advantage of expedited opportunities to expand into unaccredited districts as well as into St. Louis and Kansas City. The timetable for approving a charter's application by the state board of education is tightened.

Currently, charters are allowed only in St. Louis and Kansas City.

-- INTERVENTION: State education officials must have a process to assign assistance teams of 10 or more members to underperforming school districts. Districts with the lowest scores on the state assessment must get such help first. Suggestions from the teams are mandatory for underperforming districts.

-- STUDENT PROMOTION: Underperforming districts may not promote students from the fifth to the sixth grade or the eighth to the ninth grade if they have not scored at the proficient level on statewide English and math tests.

In St. Louis and Kansas City, students who are not reading at grade level may be promoted from second grade to third grade only if the school district provides help during the summer or provides a “looping” classroom in which the student remains with the same teacher for several years. Parents may sign a statement saying they want their child promoted regardless of reading level, but schools have the final authority on retention or promotion.

From kindergarten through 10th grade, students’ reading levels must be assessed at the beginning and the middle of each year, with students who score below district benchmarks provided with intensive help to boost their reading level.

St. Louis and Kansas City must also prepare personalized learning plans for kindergarteners or first-graders learning below grade level.

-- STUDENT IMPROVEMENT FUND: The act creates a School District Improvement Fund for unaccredited districts with money to provide tutoring and other services for struggling students.

Districts may also hire outside experts, contract with an education management organization or enter a collaborative arrangement with an accredited district in which teachers from both districts exchange positions for two school weeks.

-- REGIONAL EDUCATION AUTHORITIES: Three separate regional authorities – in the St. Louis area, the Kansas City area and the rest of the state – are created to work with local districts and local government to coordinate student transfers. Each authority will be governed by a five-member board, appointed by the governor for six-year terms.

-- PARENTAL NOTIFICATION: When a district or school loses accreditation, parents or guardians of students there must be notified within seven business days. The notice must include an explanation of a student’s transfer options. Any board that operates an underperforming school must adopt a policy about availability of home visits by school personnel.

A Parent Portal Fund is created in the state treasury to fund portals so parents have access to school information and student data.

-- ONLINE TUTORING: School districts may contract with public libraries to provide online tutoring, through an outside vendor or non-profit organization.

Changes to learning standards

Complaints about Common Core standards have been growing, in Missouri and nationally, from both the right and the left. Some said they essentially nationalized education, which traditionally has been controlled locally, and could provide too much student data to the federal government. Others worried that the standards would lead to a heavier reliance on testing.

So far, Indiana is the only state to opt out of the standards altogether and it is now putting together its own standards.

Credit Brenda Clarke | via Flickr
Educational standards set by the Common Core have become controversial to some on the right and on the left.

The bill passed by Missouri lawmakers on Thursday allows Common Core to be used in pilot tests this fall, but it also requires a new process to begin for the state to come up with its own standards.

Those Missouri standards would be drawn up by new work groups in English, math, science and history and government. Separate groups would be established for lower and upper grades.

Members of the groups would be chosen by lawmakers, the governor and state education officials and others, to include parents and school professionals from throughout the state. The hearings would be held throughout the process, including one after the work groups have submitted their final report. The new standards would be in place for the start of the 2016-17 school year.

Under the bill, the state board of education would be required to hold at least three public hearings where it “develops, evaluates, modifies, or revises” standards. 

Local districts and charter schools would be allowed to adopt their own standards, provided they do not conflict with the new statewide standards. But the law clearly states that the state board of education could not mandate curriculum, texts or other instructional materials to be used in public schools; that authority rests with local school boards.

After the new standards are put into place, state education officials would develop tests based on them.

Reacting to the bill, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released this statement:

“We welcome the opportunity to discuss the content of state standards with educators and parents. The department has made ongoing review and adjustment to Missouri's Learning Standards a regular part of department activities. We have always relied heavily on district professionals to conduct this work.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.