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Negotiations Completed Over Student Transfer Bill That Includes Private Option

Marshall Griffin/St. Louis Public Radio

(Updated at 6:12 p.m.)

House and Senate negotiators have wrapped up work on a final version of a bill to ease the burden of Missouri’s student transfer law.

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

The bill also contains a controversial provision that could spell its doom – the so-called “private option,” in which students from unaccredited public schools could transfer to private, non-sectarian schools.  Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, blasted that provision Tuesday afternoon, hours after negotiators had finished their work.

“Such a step, using public money for private schools, would destabilize the strong foundation on which public education has stood for generations, and open the floodgates to even more radical voucher schemes down the road,” Nixon said.  “That’s where I must draw the line.”

Although Nixon didn’t use the word “veto,” he did call on lawmakers to remove the private option from the student transfer bill before sending it to him.  On Monday, state Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, told fellow lawmakers that he could “almost guarantee” that the bill would not make it out of the Senate without the private option.

The conference committee report is expected to be distributed to the Missouri Senate this evening, so the full chamber can debate and vote on it Wednesday.  After that, it would move to the Missouri House for a potential final vote that would send the student transfer fix to Nixon.

(Original story)

Credit Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, presides over the conference committee for the hotly debated school transfer bill.

Negotiators spent several hours Monday night and early this morning debating several points in Senate Bill 493, including language regarding whether a school should lose accreditation when it does not have representation on the state Board of Education. State Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, wanted to bar that from happening, while state Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, wanted the governor to be notified 30 days in advance if a school without representation on the state board is about to lose accreditation.

"What we were trying to do was to make sure that the governor made appointments and filled the state Board (of Education), so that districts would have a representative on the board," Stream said.  "What we were trying to do was to basically, kind of, force his hand on this."

"But I don’t see in the language how that forces his hand," Curls responded.  "If you notify him that there's a vacancy, which he already knows, and then he makes a decision at least 30 days after notice, that still gives him the flexibility to make an appointment then or not make an appointment then."

The committee sided with Curls.

Arguably the most controversial part of the bill, the so-called "private option," was tweaked a bit.  It would still be limited to St. Louis, St. Louis County and Jackson County, but the private option would automatically kick in for schools that have been unaccredited for three years, and voter approval would not be required.  Local votes could be held, though, if a district unaccredited for fewer than three years wanted to allow students to transfer to private schools.  State Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, is the bill's sponsor.

"This is one of the bigger parts of the bill, I'll be honest, one of the most controversial parts of the bill, because for the first time it does allow for public dollars to go to private education," Pearce told reporters. "It's (just) going to be in unaccredited districts, it's just going to be in the major metropolitan areas, and so it's very limited and the regulations are extremely high."

Negotiations are set to resume this morning.  Pearce hopes to have the bill ready for debate no later than Wednesday to get it to the governor's desk by 6 p.m. Friday.  The private option could result in a veto from Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat.  He has not yet said what action he'll take, but he's on record as opposing public dollars going to private schools.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

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