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Lawmakers will try again to change student transfer law

File | St. Louis Public Radio

After two successes in the General Assembly and two vetoes by Gov. Jay Nixon, Missouri lawmakers will consider once more what changes can be made to the state’s student transfer law.

Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, who has been active on the issue as head of the the Senate Education Committee, has pre-filed one of three bills dealing with the transfers. St. Louis area Democrats – Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal of University City and Sen. Scott Sifton of Affton – have filed the others.

Pearce noted that despite Nixon’s vetoes of earlier efforts, “the issue still remains. We haven’t solved the long-term issue” of balancing quality education for students with the needs of both the sending and the receiving school districts.

Ever since the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the law in 2013, lawmakers have tried to come up with ways to strike that balance. The state’s only two unaccredited districts – Normandy and Riverview Gardens – have seen hundreds of students enroll elsewhere. When the students transfer out of a district, the tuition  loss and transportation costs have made it harder for the original district to educate the students who have remained at home.

In each of the past two years, lawmakers have tried to update the original two-paragraph law passed in 1993 with wide-ranging education packages that expanded on school transfers to cover topics from charter and virtual schools to dyslexia, funding for early childhood education, online tutoring and home visits by teachers.

But in both cases Nixon found parts of the bills objectionable. Each time, his veto stuck, with the vote margin in the House for original passage falling far short of what would be needed to override the governor and make the measure law.

Three new bills

This year’s pre-filed bills pretty much track the legislation that has won passage in the past two years, with some changes. In his bill, Pearce said he tried to take out parts that have drawn vetoes in the past, such as the expansion of charter and virtual schools as options for students in unaccredited situations.

He also wants to move accreditation of full districts down to accreditation at the building level, so that any option to move to another districts more accurately reflects an individual student’s situation.

“If a student is in an accredited building, they they should stay there," Pearce said. "That means they’re accredited, the building is working, it’s successful. Only if they’re in an unaccredited building will they have the ability to transfer out.”

Sen. David Pearce
Credit Missouri Senate
Sen. David Pearce

Chappelle-Nadal, whose bill is the most comprehensive of the three, recaps much of the language about charter and virtual schools in earlier bills. A frequent antagonist of Nixon, she said that the fact that the legislation won passage in the past shows the basic direction of her solutions is the right one.

“The governor vetoed the education bill that both Democrats and Republicans put together on both sides of the Capitol,” she said. “That says a lot. But it also says a lot that there are still children that are suffering, who are challenged because they are in a building that is unaccredited.

“I really do believe that when there is a bill that is passed by both chambers in a very bipartisan way, that means something. That means that all of the various interests that you have throughout the state, with all of the differences that we have, we were still able to come up with resolution. That’s what I filed. I believe that the hard work of the legislature should not be ignored now.”

Chappelle-Nadal said schools in her district are the ones that are suffering the most.

“Status quo has allowed us to be in the situation that we’re in right now,” she said. “When it comes to education in the state of Missouri, but more importantly in the way that we handle education in the urban core, our children are still being left behind because of the status quo. And we’ve done absolutely nothing to establish pathways to success.”

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal
Credit Missouri Senate
Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal

Sifton said he filed his billbecause many schools in his district, particularly Mehlville and Kirkwood, have been affected by the transfers. Those districts were designated by Riverview Gardens as ones where they would pay for transportation for students who opted to transfer out.

He said that while there has been no ill will toward the transfer students, there has been frustration at the situation in general.

“I think that everybody resents the fact that there was not an option for these students that was closer to home that was workable,” Sifton said. “My constituents just want a workable transfer law.

“They understand that having a first-rate education for every child in the St. Louis region is an absolute imperative, and it’s incumbent on all of us to be a part of doing that. It just needs to be done in a way that makes sense. And I’m sorry, having kids get on the bus at 4:30 in the morning to drive 20 miles back and forth five days a week, nine months a year, it’s just not the best we can do.”

Performance by transfer students

Figures released by state education officials show that annual report cards for districts that receive transfer students vary little, or not at all, whether performance for transfer students is figured in or left out.

They have not released similar figures that would compare the performance of transfer students to students in their home districts. Officials say such comparisons would be unfair because they would not take into account the fact that students who transfer might be among top performers in the first place, so their leaving would result in a decline for scores in their home districts.

Pearce noted that at the state board meeting earlier this month, several districts that had been provisionally accredited, including Jennings, moved up to full accreditation. He said that shows success on the part of state education officials for their intervention efforts and could be an indication that transfers won’t be a problem much longer.

“Hopefully,” he said, “we will see this trend continuing statewide, and perhaps this will be a moot point. But in the meantime, for those that are in accredited districts, we can give some alternatives to those students.

“It does appear that education is one thing that may not be as partisan or as political. So hope springs eternal. I’m just very hopeful that we can come up with a resolution for these students in these districts.”

If a bill does make it out of the Senate, it will be handled in the House by state Rep. David Wood, R-Versailles, who sponsored the legislation that won passage last year. He said he does not plan to introduce his own bill this year.

Asked whether lawmakers sometimes undermine their own efforts to change education by overloading bills with too many issues, Wood acknowledged that tendency does exist.

Everything is interconnected. You have to really focus on something that is comprehensive. -- Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal

“We all have our priorities in this legislation,” he said, “and we all want to make sure that what is important to us is included. It makes it very difficult to keep it clean. It’s a very emotional issue. We want our students to have the best chance at an education possible.

“When you have a bill that’s very important and has a good chance at success, and you have an agenda that you want to attach to that that’s related to education, it becomes a great vehicle. If you have a piece of legislation you’re pretty sure the governor would veto on its own, but he might be able to accept it with an important piece of legislation, you try get them to attach and balance that scale. That’s the game that we play.”

But Chappelle-Nadal said that turning such bills into legislative Christmas trees, with all sorts of issues hanging on them, is more than parliamentary posturing.

“Everything is interconnected,” she said. “You have to really focus on something that is comprehensive. If you had a narrowly focused bill on, let’s say providing more after-school tutoring, of course that would be wonderful. But there’s no way a bill like that is ever going to make it through the House and Senate.

“Most people who follow the legislature know there’s no such thing as simple, especially when it comes to education. One size does not fit all. Every school district has its different challenges. Every single building within a school district has its own challenges.”

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.