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Nixon To Veto Student Transfer Bill, Cites Private Option

the East St. Louis School district has notified 237 teachers that they might lose their jobs next year. (Flickr/Cast a Line)
(Flickr/Cast a Line)
the East St. Louis School district has notified 237 teachers that they might lose their jobs next year. (Flickr/Cast a Line)

After telegraphing his intention for a week, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon on Friday announced that he is indeed going to veto the student-transfer bill because of its provisions allowing public money to be used for private schools.

He also faults the bill because it does not require unaccredited sending districts to pay any transportation costs for students transferring to accredited districts, as the schools now are required to do.

But the governor did not signal what he plans to do next. Nixon could call a special session, but a spokeswoman said that decision has yet to be made.

Nixon actually hasn't vetoed the bill because it has yet to appear officially on his desk, said spokeswoman Channing Ansley. That should happen soon. "When the bill is presented, the governor will act in a timely fashion," she said. "Regarding a special session, that decision that has not yet been made.  The governor continues to focus on supporting efforts to ensure all districts provide Missouri students with a high-quality education that prepares them for good jobs."

Reacting to the news, state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, who had urged Nixon to sign the bill and strongly accused him of failing to work with lawmakers, said no effort would be made to override his veto.

In her view, she said in an interview, "The bill is dead. It's dead."

But Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, disagrees. "I know we're interested in (an override attempt) on the Senate side," the leader said, citing the Senate's 28-3 vote for the bill.

The Senate needs 23 votes for an override. However, Dempsey acknowledged that the House support was weaker, and fell about 20 votes short of the 109 needed for an override.

In fact, House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, acknowledged late Friday that it was unlikely that he and other backers of the bill could round up the extra 20 votes.  Unlike Nixon's tax-cut veto, which was overridden, "it would be a long haul on this one,'' Jones said.

He then added that "I would challenge the governor to provide a road map of what we should do'' as an alternative to the soon-to-be-vetoed transfer bill.

But Dempsey said that if the governor calls a special session to address the transfer issue, "We'd put the same bill on the governor's desk."

In a statement, Nixon said that the bill would have made matters worse.

“Every child in Missouri deserves a quality public education, and that is why I am vetoing Senate Bill 493,” said Nixon, a Democrat. “Senate Bill 493 fails to address the challenges resulting from the existing school transfer law and instead, would create even more problems by allowing public funds to be used for private schools and pulling the rug out from under students who have transferred.

“Throughout the legislative session I repeatedly made it clear that any effort to send public dollars to private schools through a voucher program would be met by my veto pen,” Nixon added.  “The General Assembly ignored my warnings, and this veto will be the result.”

He had offered a similar strong sentiment a week ago, just minutes after the General Assembly had ended its session for this year.

Support for veto found among many black elected officials

Nixon had the support of many House Democrats, including a majority of the House's African-American legislators, who last week had beseeched the governor to veto the bill.  African Americans in the House were on opposite sides with their Senate colleagues -- Chappelle-Nadal, Jamilah Nasheed and KiKi Curls -- who had voted for the bill.

State Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, and an outspoken opponent of the bill, said the veto opens the door for something better. "What (Nixon) did was great,'' Smith said. "This gives us a platform to start over."

Nixon also received support from the region's most prominent African-American official -- U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis.

"I strongly support Gov. Nixon’s courageous decision to veto this flawed and very dangerous bill," said Clay in a statement. "SB 493 is a thinly veiled assault on public education, fueled by special interests that are willing to trap mostly minority students in underperforming schools while they assault the constitution in order to advance their own private agendas. As the governor noted, this bill would do nothing to fix the transfer problem, nothing to close the achievement gap, and in fact, it would make a bad situation much worse.”

The controversial private option

Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka and a supporter of the bill's private option, was -- as expected -- critical of the governor's decision.  But Jones didn't mention a possible override attempt.

“The governor’s decision to veto a truly bipartisan education reform bill is extremely disappointing as it leaves the young people in our struggling school districts without a viable solution," Jones said.  He contended that Nixon " offers no solutions but instead stands in the way of our efforts to give kids a choice and access to a great education."

Kate Casas, state director of the Children's Education Council of Missouri, also criticized Nixon, saying he "let Missouri down -- particularly Missouri children. His veto effectively blocks legislation that would allow students in unaccredited schools to attend a better school in their home district.

"It is one thing that the governor chose to sit on the sidelines this entire legislative session and that he failed to offer any solutions of his own, that he made absolutely no contributions to help craft or refine SB493. But at the very least, he has an obligation to do no harm. However, he has done just that...

"It is not the governor's place to pick and choose which Missouri children have access to a high quality education. Providing all kids immediate access to the high quality education they deserve shouldn't even be a debate."

What do schools do now?

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said in a statement, "We were aware of the possibility of this action on SB 493. We will continue to work with the options we have under current law. Our immediate goal is helping students and districts smoothly close out the school year.”

Senate Bill 493 would eliminate the current requirement that unaccredited districts pay for the transportation costs of students. Backers said that that change was needed to help Normandy and Riverview Gardens, and any future unaccredited school districts, since the transportation costs can be crippling to the districts. But opponents said that eliminating the payments shifted the costs to the families of the transferring students, many of whom are poor.

House Budget Committee chairman Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, had been on the House-Senate conference committee. Although he had supported retaining the public money for transportation, Stream contended that Nixon's veto "has condemned districts to bankruptcy and closure. It’s a shame that he has once again demonstrated a complete lack of leadership on an issue of such great importance.”

Normandy already has filed suit challenging the current transfer law, creating an additional sense of urgency for many of the stakeholders.

Carole Basile, the dean of the school of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, chaired a task force whose recommendations were largely accepted by the state board of education this week when it created a new entity to run the Normandy schools, effective July 1. Basile said those ideas were drawn up in a specific context.

"Our recommendations were created with the belief that no legislative fix would be put in place," she said. 

"We can only hope that the 'no accreditation' can happen and Normandy has an opportunity to truly 'reset' with a new governance structure, greater benchmarks and accountability, and real innovation that serves to prototype what high expectations can look like for all Normandy students. We also hope that some resolution can be mae to balance the financial and moral dilemma the district finds itself in with regards to transfers."

The so-called private option provision of the bill took a variety of forms as the legislation moved toward passage in the legislature. The Senate approved it by a veto-proof majority, 28-3, but the vote in the House was 89-66, far short of the votes needed to override Nixon’s veto.

In its final form, the private option provision would have allowed students living in unaccredited districts in St. Louis, St. Louis County and Jackson County to pay tuition for students enrolling in a non-sectarian private school located in their district. At present, only one such school exists in St. Louis County, in the Riverview Gardens district.

For the provision to be used, voters in the school district would have had to approve, and tuition could have been paid only from locally generated tax dollars, not state funds. The private school would have had to agree to give state tests and, if 25 percent of its enrollment was made up of transfers, it would have had to conform to other state regulations as well.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
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.