By Jeff Fox

State legislators from the area on Friday expressed optimism that the General Assembly this year will act to head off a widespread transfer of students from the unaccredited Kansas City School District into suburban districts.

“Transferring students out to the collar districts is not the solution,” state Rep. Sheila Solon, R-Blue Springs, said at a breakfast held Friday by the Independence Chamber of Commerce and the Independence Council for Economic Development.

The General Assembly convenes next week, and the school-transfer issue is expected to be a high priority. The Kansas City School District remains unaccredited, though officials there point to improved test scores and other achievements. Under state law, students in unaccredited districts can transfer to nearby accredited districts. That’s been the subject of litigation, but as it stands today students could begin transferring from Kansas City this coming fall.

State Sen. Paul LeVota is sponsoring a bill that would have districts set student-teacher ratios, under state guidelines, in effect setting a cap on how many students a given district could handle.

“I think it’s the easiest way to do it,” LeVota said.

But LeVota also added: “The scary part of the Legislature is what else is on there,” referring to a variety of issues – school vouchers, charter schools, getting rid of teacher tenure – that other legislators are likely to try to attach to his bill.

Sen. Will Kraus, R-Lee’s Summit, said he also hopes for a simple bill like LeVota’s but said it’s unlikely to happen.

The Chamber of Commerce has put the issue at the top of its priority list for the 2014 legislative session. It favors the state granting provisional accreditation to the Kansas City District, something the state rejected several months ago.

Failing that, the chamber wants to see:

• Allowing districts that would be taking in students from an unaccredited district to set capacity limits on each school. That’s the central idea of LeVota’s bill.

• Have the unaccredited district pay tuition for students moving to accredited districts, unless those two districts can work something out on their own.

• Have the state pay the costs of transporting students changing districts.

• Let accredited districts contract with unaccredited ones to improve academic performance.

Transportation and tuition costs are a major part of the debate. The state law that allows for the transfers also puts those costs on the unaccredited district, and many argue that just makes things tougher for districts that are already struggling.

State Rep. Ira Anders, D-Independence, pointed to the unaccredited Normandy School District, in the St. Louis area, where students have already transferred out.

“Normandy is going to go bankrupt unless we give them ... 6 or 8 million dollars. And we’re not going to do that,” he said.

“It has been devastating to them. ... It’s not good public policy,” LeVota added.

As legislators address this, he said, something also has to be done for the students who do not transfer out of a failing district. Moreover, he said, underlying issues such as poverty – whether a small child is ready for school, whether home-life problems interfere with school – are a large part of the problem.

In that light, he said, it makes no sense to bring in other issues such as vouchers, teacher tenure or open enrollment.

“Those things won’t do a darn thing for the poverty issues in the state,” Anders said.

Tuesday in The Examiner: Legislators discuss ideas for changing and expanding Medicaid coverage in Missouri.