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Missouri Senate Passes Student Transfer Bill In Less Than 24 Hours

An empty desk
Bubbles | sxc.hu

(Story updated at 5:42 p.m. to include today's 3rd-read vote by the full Senate that sent SB 493 to the Missouri House.)

After spending two days debating and amending legislation to lessen the effects of Missouri's student transfer law, the state Senate overwhelmingly passed it Thursday.

The final vote was 27-5, with senators from both parties supporting it.  The five "no" votes came from both parties as well: Minority Floor Leader Jolie Justus, D-Callaway County (but who lives in Kansas City), Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, Will Kraus, R-Lee's Summit, Paul LeVota, D-Independence, and Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff.  Senate Bill 493 is now in the hands of the Missouri House.  That chamber's version is sponsored by state Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood.

"There are 23 school districts (in Missouri) now that are provisionally accredited, some of them at 50 percent -- if they slip 1/2 of a point (then) they're in unaccredited status," Stream said.  "We need to address the whole picture of why these school districts are failing, but at the same time immediately give kids and their parents access to a high quality education."

Stream's bill, HB 1868, received its first hearing Thursday afternoon before the House Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education.

(Read our earlier story below.) 

Legislation designed to soften the blow of Missouri's student transfer law has received first-round approval in the State Senate.  

Senate members spent more than 12 hours spread out over two days working on the wide-ranging bill. Senate Bill 493 would allow for accrediting individual school buildings instead of just districts as a whole and create regional authorities to handle transfers.  

As originally written in the bill, an entire district could not lose its accreditation unless 65 percent or more of its schools became unaccredited.  That was changed Wednesday night to 55 percent in one of 22 amendments added to the measure this week. Another would bar a school district from losing accreditation if there's a vacancy on the State Board of Education from the same congressional district as the unaccredited school.  That amendment was sponsored by state Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City.

"A lot of decisions were being made on behalf of the Kansas City, Mo., school district at a time that we did not have a DESE representative on the state board," Curls said.  "That's not to say that there are not other members who, of course, would have acted on behalf of the school district, but certainly my constituents would have felt a lot more comfortable had they had adequate representation."

The bill still contains language allowing students to leave failing public schools for private, non-sectarian ones, but some of the approved amendments would regulate those particular transfers.  For instance, students who want to transfer to a private school must have first attended an unaccredited school for at least one full school year and must have lived in an unaccredited school district for at least 12 months.  The private school in question must be accredited and must provide English and math assessment testing to students transferring from public schools.

Senate Bill 493 was approved on a voice vote, with state Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, loudly voting "no."  Holsman initially supported it until the private school language was added on last week. The bill's sponsor, Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, said afterward that he's not exactly pleased with every part of the bill, either.

"It's so important that we get it out of the Senate and move it on to the House for their consideration," Pearce told reporters.  "If we wait until everyone likes the bill, we'll never get legislation passed."

Pearce says he expects the full Senate to vote again on the measure next week.  After that, the student transfer bill would go to the Missouri House, where earlier this session House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, had stated that the issue was not a high priority for him.  

"This (student transfer) law was passed with great foresight by a Democratically controlled General Assembly many, many years ago,"  Jones said on Jan. 8th.  "I applaud their foresight...for the first time in nearly 40 years, kids have an opportunity to escape the failing districts that they have been consigned to because of their zip codes."

On Thursday, though, Jones said his full statement on the issue had not been accurately characterized, adding: "My priority is to make sure that every child in the state of Missouri has access to a great education, no matter which zip code they live in...solving the transfer issue has always been a priority of mine."

It is definitely a high priority for House Budget chair Rick Stream of Kirkwood, whose hometown school district is one of the receiving districts for transfers. Also, House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee chair Steve Cookson, R-Fairdealing, told the Kansas City Star that he's confident a student transfer bill will make it to Gov. Jay Nixon's desk this session.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.