JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri — A plan aimed at fixing Missouri's troubled student transfer system passed the Legislature on Tuesday, despite expanded options for charter and virtual schools and other concerns that meant the House only narrowly approved the measure.
At issue is a 1993 law that requires failing districts pay for students to switch to better-performing schools.
The Normandy school system in northern St. Louis County, which struggled for years before losing accreditation, in particular has faced hardships because of the tuition requirement. More than 630 students applied to transfer from Normandy this year, far more than the 500 the district had budgeted to pay for.
"There is no way to pay for that," bill sponsor Rep. David Wood, R-Versailles, said.
The measure's approval marks months of work to help students switch out of the state's worst-performing districts after a bill passed last session was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who cited concerns with an option to transfer to private, nonreligious schools.
The bill heading to Nixon this year instead would give students more options to transfer to virtual or charter schools. Republican Sen. David Pearce of Warrensburg, who guided the bill through the Senate, said Tuesday that he has no indication that Nixon will veto the bill.
A spokesman for Nixon didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment after the bill's final passage.
But many lawmakers raised issues with the virtual and charter school provisions, and the bill passed by a 84-73 vote in the House, only three votes shy of failing. The Senate passed it 23-11.
At the heart of the proposal is a provision to accredit schools by building, in addition to by the district. The bill would require students to first transfer to those better-performing schools in their district before other schooling options would be available to them. That could stem the outpouring of tuition dollars and keep students close to home, rather than busing them on longer commutes.
The measure also includes incentives for districts that charge failing schools reduced tuition.
Students in the city of St. Louis, Jackson County, St. Louis County and urban areas — which include St. Joseph, Independence, Springfield, Columbia and others — would be able to transfer out of their home district or to charter schools if no seats are available in better-rated traditional schools in their districts.
The bill also would allow new charter schools to open in parts of Jackson County and St. Louis County.
But Center School District in Jackson County, where negotiator and Kansas City Democrat Sen. Jason Holsman's wife works, would not allow new charters, along with nearby Oak Grove and Lone Jack districts. Holsman, who fought the bill during debate in the Senate on Tuesday night, said his wife's job has not influenced him.
Holsman spoke against expanding charters in districts in Jackson County that are performing well, including in smaller school districts such as the three exempted, which he said could unfairly lose tuition dollars and students if a new charter opens.
The bill would also allow students to transfer to attend a virtual — or online — school after a semester in failing buildings and districts, provisionally accredited districts, Jackson and St. Louis counties, and the city of St. Louis.
Opponents in the House and Senate criticized the charter and virtual school options as catering to special interests rather than student need.
"You're voting for a charter expansion bill," Rep. Genise Montecillo, D-St. Louis, told House members before the vote Tuesday. "You are not voting for a student transfer bill."
Montecillo also criticized what she called a "lack of transparency" as a deal was being met between the House and Senate. Numerous meetings were held publicly, but smaller groups privately hashed out differences on some of the main issues of contention, such as the provision that blocked charters from coming to parts of Jackson County.
Supporters admitted the bill has flaws, but argued a fix is needed to address urgent issues facing students in Normandy and other districts at risk of losing accreditation.
"It's no longer acceptable for us to turn our backs on those students and say, 'Too bad,'" Pearce said. "We as a state can offer more. We can do more."
Student transfers bill is HB 42.
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