ST. LOUIS, Mo. — More than twenty years ago, Missouri placed a law on its books. The law said among other things that a student could leave their unaccredited school district for an accredited one nearby. For years, the law wasn’t really used.

Then, over the past decade or so, public schools — largely in St. Louis and Kansas City — have flirted with losing accreditation. Districts tasked with taking in new students from failed schools challenged the law in court.

The lawsuit bounced around in court until last June, when the Missouri Supreme Court reaffirmed an earlier ruling, and students could begin to transfer.

Enter Normandy and Riverview Gardens School Districts, two school districts in St. Louis that lost accreditation. With the law firmly upheld in court, the stark reality became clear: Missouri had effectively created a potential education refugee crisis, with an opening for thousands of children to flee their local school districts for greener pastures in places like Kirkwood, Francis Howell, and Mehlville.

And while a few thousand children were already subject to the transfer law and the financial strains it created, the real crisis was looming just on the horizon. With the state’s two largest school districts — Kansas City and St. Louis Public Schools — far from flourishing, lawmakers and education activists alike saw a much larger and far more costly transfer crisis was about to take place.

If the districts lost accreditation completely and were subject to the law, tens of thousands of Missouri’s public school students would be eligible to transfer to a better school outside their district on their failed school’s dime.

With the crisis came opportunity for reformers to push their goals, for the establishment to seek more favorable statutory regulations, and for lawmakers to plant their flag in fixing schools.

 

Reformers seize the moment

In April of 2013, a bill backed by most of the education reform lobby died in the legislature after a miserable loss in the House, despite backing from then-Speaker Tim Jones. The bill’s down-in-flames loss despite support from House leadership signaled that Missouri lawmakers were not ready to upend the established educational system just yet.

Kit Crancer
Kit Crancer

“There were a series of votes that were bad for reform,” said StudentsFirst state director, Kit Crancer. “To only get 55 votes in the House, that was an obstacle going into the next year.”

Less than one year later, lawmakers in both chambers approved Senate Bill 493, the sweeping transfer bill that Gov. Jay Nixon has promised to veto. While reform advocates have been cautious to call the bill an absolute victory, the bill calls changes to Missouri’s public school system that were soundly rejected only a year ago. Perhaps even more impressive, reform groups captured the vocal support of Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal. The University City Democrat’s support carries considerable weight because she has been an outspoken critic of so-called school voucher bills in the past. After 6 years blasting any attempts to create a voucher program, Chappelle-Nadal is now one of the senators championing the “private option” in SB493.

“I was the perfect person to do this,” Chappelle-Nadal told The Missouri Times earlier this month. “Because I don’t take money from reform groups, and I’ve always been on the side of the education establishment. But I can’t do that anymore, they’ve never prescribed a solution for the unaccredited districts and that impacts me.”

Missouri NEA Legislative Director, Otto Fajen, told The Missouri Times that one of the key problems in the debate was that Missouri’s method of determining accreditation was out of balance.

“We don’t have the accountability system to speak to school quality,” Fajen said. “Basically our accountability system says [Normandy and Riverview Gardens] are high poverty districts. But Normandy School District isn’t responsible for 85 percent poverty in their geographic area. That’s a larger issue. But we have a system that ties the accreditation process almost entirely to [test scores], and it doesn’t take into account a lot of other factors of success.

Fajen said that a more appropriate system of assessing school success was more intrusive on local districts, leading the state to lean more and more toward test score outcomes as a yardstick, rather than a broader spectrum of factors. As a result, he says, there are schools whose accreditation statute doesn’t reflect their ability to educate local children. And while Fajen and reform groups have battled over assessing schools over the years, the argument has been overshadowed in 2014 over a larger debate about private schools.

The bill’s most controversial provision has to do with public and private schools. Should the bill become law, a student in an unaccredited building may transfer to a private, non-sectarian school within the boundaries of their school district.

The inclusion of the “private option” was easily the source of the most friction during debate of SB493. Nixon strongly hinted that he might veto the bill over the language, and opponents have taken to blasting the bill as a voucher program.

 

The Private Option

“The only thing a lot of people know in my district is that it’s a ‘voucher bill,’” said Rep. Vicki Englund, D-St. Louis. Englund was one of only a handful of Democrats in the

Rep. Englund
Rep. Englund

House to vote for the bill. She is also a school board member of the Mehlville School District, which received several hundred students through transfers during the past school year.

“I’m not crazy about that part of the bill, but the House position was largely represented in the final product,” Englund said. “This bill put in so many parameters on the private option: you have to fill your public in-district slots first being one of them. The bill does the number one thing though, which is ensure a good education close to home.”

Englund said she ultimately voted for the bill because it would help receiving districts control their own fate. The bill clarifies that receiving districts can set our own class sizes and prohibits what some have called “educational larceny.”

“You have some kids that say they weren’t attending Normandy the year before, but moved into the district or something and registered, and then immediately applied to transfer,” Englund said.

Current transfer students will be allowed to remain in the program, while new students will have to prove residency in their home district of at least one semester before being eligible to transfer. All of the safeguards were demanded by receiving districts like Mehlville, worried that the influx of new students could drag down the quality of education as a whole.

In the Senate in particular, the private option is the line in the sand. Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, is one of the lawmakers in the upper chamber who vowed to fight against any bill without some kind of private option. Those against it, like the Missouri NEA, are convinced the language is unconstitutional.

Legislative Director for the Missouri NEA, Otto Fajen, says that because local and state education funds are mixed together, the statute violates the state’s constitutional provision against sending general revenue funds to private schools.

“The Missouri legislature has no authority or the business creating a resource to sending kids to private schools,” Fajen said. “There are constitutional provisions that this probably violates, because schools are going to be writing a check from mingled funds.”

 

The Coming Veto

Friday afternoon, Nixon announced his intentions to veto SB493 over the private option, signaling a major battle between lawmakers and the governor over just what to do with potentially thousands of Missouri students. Some lawmakers and public officials have called on the governor to call a special session of the legislature to handle the crisis before the start of school in August. But a special session might not yield real results.

Sen. Pearce
Sen. Pearce

“My colleagues in the Senate are not very likely to back down from their position on the private option,” said Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “Last December [the governor] came out and said he thinks existing law just needed some tweaks, but I disagree, as do my colleagues. He hasn’t been involved in this issue at all except to come down about two weeks before the bill was done and say that he has a problem with the private option. But we’ve been doing this for a year, so I think it’s somewhat disingenuous for him to come down at the 11th hour and say there’s an issue with a bill.”

Without a cosmic shift, it would appear that what Missouri’s lawmakers can pass and what the governor can sign are not compatible, meaning that the law surrounding transfer students could remain largely unchanged moving into the 2014-2015 school year.

One remaining possibility now rests with the State Board of Education. The Board could simply reclassify Normandy or Riverview Garden Schools as provisionally accredited or “struggling.” If either district isn’t classified as unaccredited, students will no longer be subject to the transfer law, a move that reforms lambast as meaningless.

But while school choice advocates say a Board shift in the accreditation would be a cynical move to harm students, some in the education establishment see it as a necessary step in moving away from outcome-based accreditation. Neither side appears ready to back away from the fight.

“I can’t speak for my fellow Senators, but I can say I’m willing to work with people on both sides in a special session,” Pearce said. “That being said, I’m not sure that it would produce something drastically different than what the Governor has already spoken about. But clearly this won’t be the last time we are dealing with this issue, and we need to get working fast.”