JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri senators gave initial approval Wednesday to education legislation that seeks to control student departures from struggling schools while providing potential state financial support for the transfers.
Current law requires districts without state accreditation to pay tuition and provide transportation for students who want to attend a school in an accredited district within the same county or a bordering one. That has led to financial problems and generated concern about the ability of surrounding schools to control the number of incoming students.
Under the Senate legislation, education officials would accredit individual schools in addition to districts. Students attending a struggling school could move to a better one within their home district. If students are attending a failing school within an unaccredited district, they could transfer to another district only if they couldn't get into a higher-performing school in their home district.
School districts couldn't be classified as unaccredited unless at least 55 percent of their schools were rated as such by the State Board of Education.
"This is our time to step up and make some change," said Senate Education Committee Chairman David Pearce, R-Warrensburg.
The board currently classifies school districts as accredited, provisionally accredited or unaccredited. The board has discretion over how districts are classified, and the transfer law is among the most high-profile consequence of losing accreditation.
Missouri currently has three unaccredited school districts: Normandy and Riverview Gardens in St. Louis County, and Kansas City. Students have transferred during the current academic year from Normandy and Riverview Gardens, and could soon start from Kansas City. Another 11 school districts are provisionally accredited.
The legislation endorsed by the Senate would set a 12-month residency requirement for students to transfer out of a district. Students could transfer to other schools or a nonsectarian private school within the student's home district. The unaccredited school district would pay at least some of the tuition. Private schools would need to be accredited and administer state English and math assessments for transfer students from public schools.
Receiving school systems could establish policies for admitting transfer students, and the Senate also embraced a proposal that could lead to state government paying some of the transfer costs.
If the school board of a district receiving transfer students sets its tuition at less than 90 percent of what it is entitled, the state would add an extra 10 percent. If a school system offered a bigger discount — at least 30 percent — then state evaluations of the district would not include performance data from transfer students for at least five years.
Missouri lawmakers separately are considering a $5 million rescue to get Normandy through the current school year, and the State Board of Education has imposed financial oversight for the district. Normandy has faced budget difficulties while paying for transfers and is projected to run out of funds by April.
The legislation approved Wednesday would allow state officials to step in before the school year if it appears a district will not be able to make it through because of financial difficulties.
Senators endorsed the legislation following two days of debate. It needs another vote in the Senate before moving to the state House.
Tackling the student transfer law and addressing unaccredited districts is a priority this year for Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, and the chamber's measure incorporated several bills. Democratic Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal also was deeply involved with the legislation.
In addition to the legislative efforts, Missouri education officials have been working on plans for assisting and intervening in schools. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education last week released recommendations that seek earlier interventions with greater state involvement as a school's performance worsens.
Education legislation is SB493