JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — With the chambers appearing divided on the “private option,” the House and Senate appear poised for a contentious negotiation on the two versions of the bill making sweeping changes to Missouri’s student transfer laws.

The House spent hours on the bill approved by the Senate a few weeks ago, but only worked through a small number of amendments dealing largely with the provisions of the bill that would allow students in unaccredited schools to attend private schools.

Rep. Rick Stream
Rep. Rick Stream

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, publicly said that the bill could not advance through the senate without the private option. The House passed amendments limiting the option to the schools in the Kansas City and St. Louis area, as well as requiring approval by vote of individual districts before private transfers can take place.

Proponents say the bill will provide immediate relief to the students in unaccredited school districts who, by Missouri law, have the right to transfer to a nearby accredited school. The bill accredits schools on an individual building level, rather than on the district level, and provides the chance to transfer in-district. However, students that have no nearby options may choose a private, non-sectarian school, under the bill.

“Today’s approval of senate bill 493 in the house is an important step forward in the effort to put in place student-centered reforms and parental choices,” said Kit Crancer, State Director of StudentsFirst, an education reform group. “Significant reform remains. We’re happy the bill is likely moving to conference where it’s my hope both chambers continue to put politics aside and kids first.”

Opponents call the bill a voucher bill, and say it dismantles public schools by sending taxpayer funds to private institutions.

“This bill does nothing to resolve the student transfer situation or help struggling school districts,” Rep. Keith English, D-Florissant, said. “It is simply a voucher bill. The private schools are not held to the same standards as public schools and are not required to take all students.”

“The apparent insistence on the inclusion of a privatization agenda endangers progress on the most important issue the legislature will deal with this year and that is unfortunate,” said Mike Lodewegen, spokesperson for the Missouri Association of School Administrators. “While they made a lot of progress on several issues that existed in the bill as it came out of the senate, sometimes there are philosophical differences that are irreconcilable and that is the case with the voucher provisions in senate bill 493.”

Other lawmakers saw the bill as the first step toward improving education.

“Tonight, a bi-partisan coalition passed the house solution to the transfer law,” said. Rep. Elijah Haarh, R-Springfield. “The provisions of this bill represent the house’s commitment to ensuring the best possible educational future to the students of unaccredited school districts.”

While several house amendments as well as opponents of the bill lambasted the private option, all current unaccredited school districts in Missouri would be covered under the house language.

But the House handler, Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, said the option was narrowly drawn, and that students in failing schools shouldn’t be kept from accessing quality schools simply because they are private.

“I would ask all the members of the body to ask one question: if their children or grandchildren were in these unaccredited school districts and they did not have the financial wherewithal either to move out of that district or put their children in private school, what would you want?” Stream said. “You would want them to have a high quality education somewhere else than the building they are in. Give students in these unaccredited districts an opportunity to escape.”

With lawmakers in both chambers eying the private option as the line-in-the-sand, the bill’s ability to make it to Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk appears hinged on what level of compromise the conference committee can reach. Too large a private option is likely to kill the legislation in the House, and a narrow or eliminated private option is a non-starter for the senate.

Looming over all are comments from Nixon, who has spoken strongly in broad terms against sending public school students to private schools on the taxpayer dime. While his office has yet to comment on the most recent version of the bill, a veto based on the private option is not an unlikely scenario.

The House approved the measure with 91 votes, an easy majority but not enough to override a veto. The bill will now be sent to the senate where they are all but assured to send the bill into a conference committee with the house.