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Missouri House Sends Student Transfer Bill To Nixon With 'Private Option' Intact

UPI/Bill Greenblatt

(Updated 10 a.m. Friday, May 16)

The Missouri House has passed the so-called student transfer fix, sending it to Gov. Jay Nixon one day before the end of the 2014 legislative session.

Senate Bill 493 would allow for individual school buildings to be accredited instead of the district as a whole, and it would create regional authorities to oversee student transfers.

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, praised the bill late Thursday as "the most far-reaching education reform measure in decades."

But two provisions led to strong opposition Thursday on the House floor. The first is the so-called private option that would allow students to transfer from public schools to private, nonsectarian schools.  State Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, says the private option amounts to a voucher experiment that’s exploiting minority children.

“It’s experimentation on kids that look like me,” Smith said.  “It upsets me that we’ve got all this stuff, we’ve got all this special interest stuff in this damn bill, but we don’t have anything that’s actually going to fix or immediately help the districts that need this help.”

Smith was among 18 members of the House Democratic Caucus, including most of the Legislative Black Caucus, who underscored that view early Friday at a news conference in which they called for Gov. Jay Nixon to veto the bill.

State Rep. Tommie Pierson, chairman of the black caucus, said he expects Nixon to do so. "Gov. Jay Nixon has strongly indicated he shares our conviction that public education taxes should be spent only on public education and that he will veto SB 493,'' Pierson said. "Once the governor formally receives the bill, we encourage him to veto it without delay."

Pierson and other Democrats said they also expected the governor to call a special session this summer to craft a new bill.

Smith and Pierson were among several Democrats who contended that it was unfair, and possibly illegal, that the bill authorizes vouchers for private schools — but only in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas. They said that rural legislators opposed shifting public money to private schools in their areas but were willing to do in urban areas.

The House members sharply criticized two St. Louis area state senators — Jamilah Nasheed of St. Louis and Maria Chappelle — who have called on Nixon to sign the transfer bill. The two senators said that a veto would be seen as offensive to black children. Pierson, Smith and other House members asserted Friday that the opposite was the case and accused the senators of being out of step.

Dempsey said in a statement that he was concerned about a Nixon veto and a special session. Dempsey said the Senate was committed to the final version of the bill, calling it "a path forward that includes accountability for failing districts and a window of opportunity for kids to receive a quality education close to home."

Emotional House debate over private option

Thursday's debate over the private option turned heated at times.  State Rep. Genise Montecillo, D-St. Louis, was recognized to speak, and then spent her time allowing two other Democratic lawmakers to take the floor who say they almost never get recognized to speak.

“How would you say that we’re going to use the private option to create a Tuskegee experiment in St. Louis city (and) St. Louis County (and Jackson County), and don’t do it for the whole state?” said state Rep. Karla May, D-St. Louis.  “That is not fair.”

"I … have a problem with taking public monies and putting them in private schools,” said state Rep. Brandon Ellington, D-Kansas City.  “But we’re not talking about that because we want to say that we’re here to fix the transfer issue, which is a lie — because if we were here to fix the transfer issue, this bill would strictly be about transfers.”

Other lawmakers objected to eliminating free transportation for transfer students from the bill.

“For the poorest kids in unaccredited districts, there is not a clear fix to cover their transportation to receiving districts, if we do this,” said state Rep. Jeff Grisamore, R-Lee’s Summit.  “If you’re not providing them a (school) bus, it’s going to be incumbent on their parents, often a single parent, to be able to get them 20 (or) 25 miles to a receiving district, and that’s just not even realistic or possible.”

Supporters argued that it’s not a perfect bill, but that it would provide relief to both sending and receiving school districts. 

“I can talk about how the bill isn’t perfect, we all know it’s not perfect, but what is less perfect is not doing anything,” said state Rep. Vicki Englund, D-Green Park.

Englund also echoed what her state senator, Scott Sifton, D-Affton, said on the Senate floor Wednesday:

“No. 1: I would like the governor to sign this bill – I would like him to sign it because we need to start fixing these problems.  No. 2:  If the governor is not going to sign it, veto it immediately.  If you don’t like it, get it over with, get it done, because then we need to call a special session to fix it – because if we are truly about solving these problems, we need to come up here and do it – no more talking.”

State Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, handled the bill in the House and got the last word in before the vote.

“If we do nothing, if we don’t pass this bill, then the chaos that’s occurring in the transfer program now, which is bankrupting school districts, will continue …. We need to address this issue today and now,” Stream said.

Transportation costs shifted to students

Roughly 2,200 students have transferred from Normandy and Riverview Gardens this school year, costing the two districts around $15 million. Lawmakers approved an extra $2 million in the state’s supplemental budget so Normandy students could finish out the school year.

According to the Riverview Gardens district, it is paying tuition for 230 students in the Mehlville School District and 176 in Kirkwood. The total amount the district has spent in transportation to date is $566,325.

In Normandy, 453 students opted to attend Francis Howell.Transportation for these students totaled $687,253 through March 2014. Tuition for student transfers totals almost $8 million February 2014.

In the final version of the bill, the transportation costs have been shifted to the individual students and their families. Some legislators said that change was prompted by a desire to curb the costs for the Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts, which now foot the transportation costs. Stream said in an interview Friday that he still supported the idea of the state covering some or all of that cost, but added that the Senate wouldn't budge from its position that it objected to the use of state money for transportation costs in the transfer program.

Senate Bill 493 passed 89 to 66, well short of the 109 needed to overcome a potential veto from Nixon.  Seven Democrats joined the GOP majority in voting “yes,” while 24 Republicans joined most Democrats in voting “no.” It got a much better reception from the Senate, where it passed 28-3.

The governor has signaled that remains strongly opposed to the private option, although he still stops short of saying he will veto the proposed student transfer fix.  He said on Tuesday that it was too early to talk about calling lawmakers back for a special session.

Dale Singer provided information for this story.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.
Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.