The state of Missouri is trying to move ahead under a school transfer law that has at times stirred deep concerns among local school leaders, a state official said Wednesday.

“It creates a lot of problems, and it creates a lot of uncertainty out there,” State Board of Education member Charlie Shields said in describing the 1993 law. He spoke at the Independence Chamber of Commerce monthly luncheon.

“We don’t, frankly, think the transfer law makes a lot of sense,” Shields said.

The law allows students in districts without state accreditation to transfer into neighboring districts. The Kansas City School District currently lacks accreditation, though only about two dozen families have applied to go elsewhere, most of them to North Kansas City. One has applied to Independence.

The issue could be moot if the Kansas City district’s scores are high enough next month for the State Board of Education to grant provisional accreditation. Shields expressed optimism on that point and noted recent gains but added that “one year is not a trend.”

Elsewhere transfers have been a problem, especially in the Normandy School District near St. Louis, where one-fourth of the students left. A failing district has to pay tuition and transportation for those students, and critics – Shields agreed with them – say that puts the district into a worse spiral: failing schools, the loss of generally better performing students and fewer resources to address the situation.

“The situation in Normandy is very troublesome. It’s not a good situation,” Shields said. The state has stepped and created a new district there. It fired all the teachers and then hired back about half. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has assigned it no accreditation status.

If a district remains unaccredited long enough, the state has many options on how to intervene. Shields said the approach DESE is taking in Normandy is the new model.

“What we’ve hoped for is we don’t get in that situation,” he said.

But Shields also said new state standards coming into play could put more districts in danger of losing accreditation.

“There are a lot of rural districts that are right on the bubble right now,” he said.

At the same time, the Missouri General Assembly has ordered DESE to begin intervening earlier, when a district’s scores begin to slip, rather than waiting until it falls below the line for accreditation. But Shields, who was a state legislator for 20 years, said the General Assembly has to provide more resources.

The legislature this year passed a bill to address concerns about the transfer law. That bill would have:

• Let neighboring districts, the ones accepting students, set limits on how many they would take.

• Waived having the unaccredited district pay for transportation.

• Eased accountability for districts taking students if they offered lower tuition.

• Under some circumstances, let public money go to private, non-religious schools that take in students from a failing district.

That last piece, about private, non-religious schools, was among the reasons Gov. Jay Nixon cited in vetoing the bill. He also cited concerns about putting transportation costs on parents and on easing the rules for school accountability.

Legislators meet in September to possibly override the governor on vetoed bills, including this one.

“I think most people would tell you that’s not likely to happen,” Shields said.

Shields said the struggling Normandy district has issues “almost identical to challenges Independence faced with it took over a chunk of Kansas City,” referring to the 2008 transfer of seven schools in western Independence and Sugar Creek.

He had praise for the district – “Independence has a very innovative school district,” he said – and said people around the state have noticed how it’s dealing with its challenges but also understand that success takes time.

Societal trends

Shields, an Independence native and graduate of Van Horn High School, also is the chief operating officer of Truman Medical Center Lakewood and on Friday becomes its CEO. At the opening of his remarks and in response to questions, he also discussed school issues in broader terms.

Why does a hospital executive worry about this, he asked?

“The No. 1 determinant of your health is wealth, and the No. 1 determinant of wealth is education,” he said.

Asked why, fundamentally, the Kansas City schools have struggled for so long, Shields had a quick and simple answer.

“Children in poverty,” he said.

“That’s the common denominator in failing school districts,” he added.

He told a story from his wife’s teaching days in St. Joseph. A student – a small child – comes to class, but not ready to go, not even with a pencil. An exasperated teacher sends that child to the principal.

Hold on a minute, says another staffer. Think about this: That little kid’s parents didn’t wake him. He got up on his own, got dressed, maybe got breakfast, and got to school. So the lack of a pencil isn’t the issue.

“Children in poverty face a lot of challenges when it comes to going to school,” he said.

He added that poverty is not an issue for schools to resolve.

“It has to be a community issue if you want to make it work,” he said.