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House panel wants tuition cap on student transfers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 4, 2013 - A Missouri House panel that held hearings on education throughout the state this fall says tuition for students transferring from unaccredited districts is too high, making it difficult for those sending districts to make financial plans.

In its report released this week, the House Interim Committee on Education noted that some districts receiving transfer students charge twice as much as others. Because the transfer students generally are filling seats that would otherwise be vacant, the committee said the law calculating tuition should be changed.

The committee suggested one possible formula, which would be derived from the state’s current funding formula. It would “limit tuition to a single amount to make planning easier and that would prescribe the scope of control over the number and conditions for acceptance of transfer students.”

Currently, that law allows the receiving district to set the tuition rates -- which vary from nearly $20,000 in Clayton down to about $8,400 in Mehlville – according to a formula that takes into account the cost of maintaining a grade level grouping divided by the number of students in that group.

If the tuition amount is disputed, the law allows the state board of education to settle the matter.

The committee report says that a “more uniform calculation of tuition would also help eliminate penny-wise and pound-foolish decisions such as selecting a more distant district to receive students based on a drastically lower tuition. At this point, with large-scale transfers in process and pending, it is clear that the sending district cannot make fiscal plans with any level of confidence when tuition can vary by nearly 100 percent.”

The panel also said that districts receiving transfer students “need some control over their circumstances, such as designating available seats, based on a consistent rationale.”

The committee’s other recommendations in the area of students transferring from unaccredited districts include “the need to intervene appropriately before a district becomes unaccredited” and “the idea of shared responsibility for academic improvement,” with educators from successful districts helping those that have fallen behind.

The report said that a new law that allows expanded avenues for intervention in underachieving districts “should have better results than the old ‘one-size-fits-most but not all’ approach the state coped with for the last 15 years.”

Mixed reaction

The recommendation for a tuition cap met with a mixed reaction from some members of the House committee.

State Rep. Margo McNeil, D-Florissant, favors the move because of the financial drain on the unaccredited districts, which she says is unsustainable. She would also like to see limits on the number of students receiving districts would have to take to limit their costs as well.

“Ideally,” she said, “receiving districts would not be expending more money for teaching staff or building more buildings or putting trailers on parking lots.”

She said the St. Louis area’s voluntary transfer program that began in the 1980s has worked well with a tuition limit around $7,000 a student, so the transfers for students in unaccredited districts should be able to handle that as well.

“We can debate about what the reasonable amount is,” McNeil said, “but it certainly cannot be any more than what the unaccredited districts receive from state funds and local funds, or it will put the districts out of business….

“The consequence of districts going out of business is pretty dramatic.”

But state Rep. Lyle Rowland, R-Cedarcreek, who is vice chair of the interim committee, said he was “not 100 percent behind” the recommendation for a tuition cap, in part because it could lead to districts spending less to educate a transfer student than it would to educate a resident student.

Rowland, who served as a principal and superintendent in a K-8 school district before being elected to the legislature, said he would like to see more attention paid to the financial management of districts that say they can’t survive the costs of transfers.

“Saying that a school district is going to go broke means that someone is not willing to cut where they have to cut,” he said. “I feel for them, but there are management tools that need to be in place, and I just feel that they need to make those cuts where they can make them.”

Since the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the state transfer law in June, about 2,000 students have left Normandy and Riverview Gardens for other area school districts that are accredited.

Both districts have said the tuition and, in some cases, the transportation bills they must pay have had serious financial impacts. Normandy is projected to go broke in March and the state school board has asked for $6.8 million in emergency funding to help it last until the end of the school year, but the request has not met with a very positive response from lawmakers.

The district has also laid off 103 teachers and other employees and closed an elementary school to cut its budget.

A variety of legislators, education groups and others, including the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, has discussed proposed changes to the transfer law and other factors that affect the success of students in underperforming districts.

DESE held hearings in Normandy and in Riverview Gardens last month and has others scheduled in each district for later this month to gather information for its own plan, which it expects to present to the state board in January.

Since pre-filing of bills for next year’s legislative session opened on Dec. 1, at least one bill dealing with school transfers has been submitted. The proposed legislation, filed by Rep. Bill Otto, D-Maryland Heights, amends the current transfer law by adding this clause at the end:

“But no school or school district shall be required to admit any student, unless the student attended a school in the district in the previous school year.”

Other recommendations

Besides the recommendations the committee made about the school transfers,  it also had other conclusions based on the hearings it held throughout the state.

Its report noted that increased spending on early childhood education was the “most enthusiastically recommended and most often mentioned possibility for long term improvement of academic achievement.”

It also mentioned that with Missouri anticipating a better-than-usual financial situation, more spending for early childhood education would be a good place for those additional funds.

McNeil noted that particularly in high-poverty areas, getting students ready for kindergarten is crucial. Rowland echoed an old advertising slogan – “pay me now or pay me later” – as the best reason for investing in a child’s schooling as early as possible.

“Why not spend a little bit of money now instead of spending a whole lot of money later when those kids can’t perform?” he said.

The committee also recommended a longer school day or longer school year or both, to give Missouri students more time in the classroom, particularly for struggling students and struggling districts.

“A longer day or a calendar that minimizes out-of-school periods so that a student does not have to spend the first six weeks of the fall term making up ground lost over the 12 weeks of summer vacation can be a crucial part of getting to better academic achievement for all students,” the committee report said.

McNeil said she planned to introduce a bill extending learning time, particularly in unaccredited districts.

“Giving children a little additional time to catch up is what I feel is going to be necessary in order for them to really excel,” she said.

The committee report said one of the most hotly debated topics in its hearings around the state were the Common Core standards adopted by Missouri and most of the other states. It did not have a recommendation on the standards but said it “remains concerned over the issue and will be watchful to protect the openness of all processes related to it, especially the statutory protection for curriculum as a local decision.”

In general, the report said, “it was apparent that a disconnect has occurred in two areas – the first, between some districts and some of their patrons, and the second, between the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the average Missouri parent…..

“DESE has been open about their standards process, but this information has not always filtered out of the educational world to the general public. In some instances when it has, it has not been accurately portrayed.”

Tim Lloyd of St. Louis Public Radio contributed information for this report.

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.