JEFFERSON CITY – About 2,000 students have transferred from their home districts near St. Louis and more could follow suit in Kansas City, increasing pressure on Missouri lawmakers to address a broad school transfer law that requires struggling districts to pay for children to enroll in nearby higher-performing school systems.
Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey said tackling the law and unaccredited districts is a key priority for the legislative session starting Jan. 8.
"What we want is for our children to have access to a high quality education, and we would prefer that to be in their neighborhoods and communities," said Dempsey, R-St. Charles. "It's really how we get to those two questions where we devote most of our time this year."
Under the 1993 Missouri law, districts without state accreditation must pay tuition and provide transportation for students who want to attend an accredited school within the same county or a bordering one. No exception is made for those without room. State education officials have offered voluntary guidance for implementing the law that includes advising districts to set class sizes and student-teacher ratios and to develop procedures giving applicants an equal chance for admission if there isn't sufficient space.
The transfer law several times has gone before the Missouri Supreme Court, which this month upheld it for the third time. That has helped switch the spotlight to the state Capitol, where lawmakers previously have struggled to find consensus on education issues.
Several St. Louis-area lawmakers already have proposed identical measures that would let districts develop policies to control class sizes. They call for the State Board of Education to separately accredit individual buildings within unaccredited school systems while requiring students to transfer first to a well-performing school within their home district before setting out elsewhere if there isn't space. Accredited districts also could sponsor charter schools within unaccredited ones.
"These situations are no longer embodied in legal theories or hypotheticals," said Sen. Eric Schmitt, a Republican from St. Louis County. "We are dealing with kids who are leaving their communities, going to other places (and) other districts are doing their best to accommodate them."
Others have suggested different ideas. Among those is legislation from the Senate Education Committee chairman that also would require state involvement in provisionally accredited districts and would establish a "statewide achievement school district" to oversee struggling schools. A House education committee's report suggested limiting the tuition unaccredited districts could be charged and prescribing the scope of receiving districts' control over the numbers and conditions of transfers. Next month the State Board of Education also plans to discuss ideas for struggling schools.
Missouri's three unaccredited school systems are Normandy and Riverview Gardens in St. Louis County and Kansas City public schools. Normandy is projected to run out of funds in March. Another 11 Missouri school systems have provisional accreditation, which includes districts outside the metropolitan areas.
Kate Casas, state director of the Children's Education Council of Missouri, said discussion should be about how Missouri got to this point and possible solutions for that and not just the transfer law. She said if lawmakers let districts limit transferring students, then those seats need to be replaced with an equal number of alternatives such as charters, virtual education and private school choice.
Casas said there are things to address with the transfer law but that the status quo isn't as problematic as simply repealing it would be.
"I don't see the actual transferring of students from one school district to another as a crisis," Casas said.
Student transfers so far have been limited to the St. Louis region but could start in Kansas City, where there are about 15,000 students in kindergarten through high school in a district unaccredited since 2012. Superintendent R. Stephen Green said transfers could cost $120 million to $150 million from a $238 million budget.
"The constant turmoil and turbulence, whether it's the transfer law, the threat of takeover, all of those things threaten the stability of us continuing to move in the direction that we have shown we are moving," Green said.
The most recent state data show 13 schools in Kansas City performed at the accredited level, six at the provisional level and 12 at the unaccredited level. Green said the district hasn't determined whether there would be room in the highest achieving schools for more students.
Officials in districts near those that are unaccredited also are watching, including Independence, Blue Springs, Fort Osage and Grain Valley. Bob Bartman, superintendent of the Center School District bordering Kansas City and a former state education commissioner, said the district heard from about 100 families interested in transferring after Kansas City lost accreditation. There is space for about 100-200 students.
"They've got a calamity going on in St. Louis County that isn't good for anybody, and it is certainly something that wouldn't be helpful to our general region either," Bartman said. "We need to find solutions that are long-term solutions."