A state legislator from the area said Friday he’s confident the General Assembly will resolve Missouri’s school-transfer issue in the coming weeks.
“It’s an issue that we all care about and will be working on together,” state Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence, said at an Independence Chamber of Commerce legislative update.
Also, a local legislator sponsoring a bill to expand and reform Medicaid said there’s quiet progress on that.
“Unfortunately, it is a long shot,” said the legislator, Rep. Noel Torpey, R-Independence.
School officials in Eastern Jackson County have expressed deep concerns about the state’s transfer law, which allows students in districts lacking state accreditation, such as the Kansas City district, to transfer to nearby accredited districts. That could start as soon as this fall, though only a handful of Kansas City families so far have applied.
Still, several legislators have offered bills to change the transfer law, which was passed a generation ago when legislators did not contemplate a situation like today’s, with state standards such that several districts are unaccredited or only provisionally accredited and, officials say, more are headed in that direction.
“This transfer school issue has been destructive to some schools in the St. Louis area, and we don’t want it to be destructive to schools in our area,” said LeVota, referring to the financial drain on unaccredited districts that have to foot the bill for sending students to accredited districts.
Rep. Mike Cierpiot, R-Lee’s Summit, the House assistant majority floor leader, said he thinks legislators will begin work in earnest on the issue next week, when they return from their spring break.
There are several bills, many of which center on the idea of first sending students from failing schools to other schools – within that unaccredited district – that are doing well. When those seats fill up, students could go to neighboring districts, but those districts would be allowed to set caps on enrollment. After that, in the bill the state Senate has passed, students could go to private schools – with state aid, a sticking point for many legislators.
Cierpiot said he’s OK with that idea “and I don’t know that we tell the child left behind if all the schools say they’re full.”
Kansas City district has lacked full state accreditation for decades, though even provisional accreditation would keep the transfer option from kicking in. The district lost provisional accreditation in 2012. The district asked the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to give it provisional accreditation several months ago – based on one year’s test scores – but was denied.
“The (State Board of Education) can do that at any time,” LeVota said.
LeVota also has been critical of the state commissioner of education, Chris Nicastro, who “in my opinion, just wants to get rid of the Kansas City School District,” he said.
Cierpiot painted that situation differently. The state needs to see consistent progress such as a rolling average of test scores over two or three years. Going on one year’s data, he said, would mean stripping the St. Louis School District of its accreditation.
He also mentioned the Kansas City district’s long struggles with achievement and accreditation.
“After 30 or 35 years, finally, we need to force some things on that district,” he said.
Torpey agreed, adding, “Unfortunately, the kids in Kansas City have suffered for years and years and years, and we need to do something.”
State officials on Friday outlined a program under which they would look at districts individually, directing more resources to unaccredited or provisionally accredited districts.
Legislators did express concerns that rising state standards appear to have more than two dozen districts on a trajectory toward losing full accreditation.
“Something’s wrong with that picture, to me, if we do that,” said Rep. Ira Anders, D-Independence.
As the law stands now, that could open the door to widespread transfers.
“If we do nothing ... open enrollment’s going to happen across the state,” Torpey said. “It’s just slowly going to happen.”
Torpey also has worked for months on legislation to change the state’s Medicaid program, extending health care coverage to hundreds of thousands of Missourians who lack it.
“I think there’s a window here where we can get the reforms done,” he said.
Under Obamacare, states are asked to open up Medicaid to anyone making to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. In Missouri, that would add about 300,000 people, bringing coverage of some sort – private, Medicare, Medicaid – to nearly to everyone in the state, as Gov. Jay Nixon has advocated.
The federal government is offering to largely underwrite the expansion, but only about half of the states have done so.
Torpey has a bill that would change the program – federal waivers would be needed – as well as expand it, an approach some states have taken. Those above 100 percent of the poverty level would be directed to health exchanges to buy insurance. The reforms in his bill include transparency in hospital billing, allowing clinics in schools in poorer areas, incentives to reduce expensive use of the emergency room, and a requirement that recipients have to be working – as 74 percent of Medicaid recipients are – or looking for work.
He said those reforms are crucial to getting expansion approved.
“You really can’t do one without the other ... because they really are linked,” he said.
Torpey said the current system isn’t working. Although a family of four making $93,000 can go through the Obamacare health exchange to buy insurance and get a subsidy, “a family of four making $23,000 can get no help, and that’s just wrong,” he said.
“I’m not sure my bill will actually be the vehicle, and I’m OK with that,” Torpey said. “I just want to see it across the finish line.”