JEFFERSON CITY – Students at troubled Missouri schools could switch to nearby quality schools or choose a private school at local taxpayers' expense under legislation the Senate passed Thursday.
The legislation overhauls a student transfer law dating to 1993 that has led to recent financial problems for unaccredited districts that currently must pay for students who want to attend better-performing schools in other districts.
Under the Senate legislation, individual schools would be accredited along with entire districts. Students who attend a struggling school could move to a better one within their home district. Transferring out of a school district would remain an option, but only for students who come under a failing school within an unaccredited school district and who cannot move to a higher-performing school there. There would be a 12-month residency requirement for students to transfer.
"We are giving those students a choice," said Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a Democrat from St. Louis County.
Addressing transfers and unaccredited school districts has received significant attention this year, and the Senate spent much of its time this week debating the bill. Still, supporters said additional work would be needed.
Senators approved the measure 27-5, and it now moves to the House, where a committee considered separate proposals Thursday.
Of the five senators voting no, three were from the Kansas City area: Democrats Paul LeVota of Independence and Jolie Justus of Kansas City, and Republican Will Kraus of Lee’s Summit.
Under the Senate legislation, students who transfer from their neighborhood schools could go to other public schools or to a non-religious private school within the district where they live. Unaccredited schools would pay at least some of the tuition. The private school would need to be accredited and administer state English and math assessments for transfer students from public schools.
The bill also allows receiving school districts to set policies for class sizes and student-teacher ratios. The districts could refuse transfers if those policies would be violated.
LeVota questioned whether the bill does enough to prevent schools from failing, and others raised concerns about the private school portion.
"We open up folks, who are not accountable to the public, spending public money," he said.
The Senate legislation would make it optional for unaccredited districts to pay transfer students' transportation costs and would offer an incentive for receiving districts to offer a tuition discount. If a school board sets 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.
School bill is SB493.