JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The increasing burden of transferring students from unaccredited districts into neighboring districts with accreditation is stirring some lawmakers to seek a change to the 1994 Outstanding Schools Act that created the opening for Missouri students to leave their districts if they underperform.
At the Joint Committee on Education hearing held earlier this week, Commissioner of Education Chris Nicastro, along with superintendents from St. Louis area schools currently undergoing transfers, testified about what was working, and what needed to change.
“The testimony we had really helped us understand exactly what is going on,” committee Chair Mike Lair, R-Chilicothe, tells The Missouri Times. “We have a much better sense of where the bumps in the road come from. We’ll probably have to explore some adjustments to the tuition formula, as well as some things the state board of education can do.”
Lair said the only major point of contention on the committee, which has ranking members from the House and Senate education committees, was whether to provide the $6.8 million in emergency funding to Normandy School District, which says they will go bankrupt by mid-March without more funds.
“I think a lot of people are looking at that funding and just trying to determine if the money is going to help the kids,” Lair says. “If we know it’s going to help the kids then I think we’ll approve it, but there are a lot of concerns about the handling of the money.”
The shortage comes from the 1994 law, which states that unaccredited districts must cover the tuition of students leaving their district for better schools, often these school’s tuition rates exceed the unaccredited districts. In some cases, schools must also cover transportation costs for transferred students, as well as educate whatever kids choose to remain in the district.
One possible solution currently being explored by Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis City, would accredit schools on an individual building level and not a district level. By doing so, a student could theoretically be transferred from one school to another, better, school in his own district, meaning the funds for his education wouldn’t be sent outside the local district.
“In some districts we’ll have a school here or there that is doing well even though the district as a whole is not,” Nasheed says. “What I want to do is say ok, let’s accredit these individual school buildings. Take Normandy just for an example. If a child was in a bad school building, a bad high school, but there was a better one in that Normandy district, let’s have him go to that better school, and then Normandy gets to keep that funding to educate their own kids instead of sending it all the way to another school.”
Another problem ripe for statutory fixes was raised in the hearing. Superintendents from several schools testified that some families utilizing the transfer program were families whose children were not even attending Normandy schools previously, but saw the transfer situation as an opportunity to send their child to a better school, cost free.
“You got some kids who were attending private school but the parents look at this and pull them out,” Nasheed tells The Missouri Times. “Because then they don’t have to spend that money on tuition because the district is going to send them to a better school and you don’t have to pay.”
Nasheed says her bill accrediting schools on the individual level would have a provision mandating that anyone utilizing the transfer program must have attended the unaccredited district in question for at least three years previously.
“Ultimately there are just some unintended consequences of [the 1994 law] that if we don’t address it is not going to get any better for those kids,” Nasheed says. “So we need to get in there and see how can we make this work? Let’s make some changes, and then let’s get DESE in there and see how we turn these schools around.”
Nasheed says she may pre-file the bill, though she “isn’t normally one to pre-file,” but that she will be conferring with other members of the Senate first.
Lair, who is a former teacher, says his committee had a “wealth of information” from this week’s hearing to go over, but that he was certain legislation would eventually be offered in one or both chambers by members of the committee to address the problems.
“There’s a consensus that something has to be done, that we can’t just wait for things to work out,” Lair says. “Now, will it take some time to get that consensus in a bill? Sure. But the goal here is to have these meetings so we come into the next legislative session prepared to handle this.”