Student-transfer bill on its way to Nixon, 'private option' intact

May 16, 2014

Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, who represents part of the Normandy school district, calls the bill "experimentation on kids that look like me."
Credit Jason Rosenbaum / St. Louis Public Radio

The Missouri House has passed the so-called student transfer fix, sending it to Gov. Jay Nixon one day before the end of the 2014 legislative session.

Senate Bill 493 would allow for individual school buildings to be accredited instead of the district as a whole, and it would create regional authorities to oversee student transfers.  But two provisions led to strong opposition on the House floor. The first is the so-called private option that would allow students to transfer from public schools to private, nonsectarian schools.  State Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, says the private option amounts to a voucher experiment that’s exploiting minority children.

“It’s experimentation on kids that look like me,” Smith said.  “It upsets me that we’ve got all this stuff, we’ve got all this special interest stuff in this damn bill, but we don’t have anything that’s actually going to fix or immediately help the districts that need this help.”

The debate over the private option turned heated at times.  State Rep. Genise Montecillo, D-St. Louis, was recognized to speak, and then spent her time allowing two other Democratic lawmakers to take the floor who say they almost never get recognized to speak.

“How would you say that we’re going to use the private option to create a Tuskegee experiment in St. Louis city (and) St. Louis County (and Jackson County), and don’t do it for the whole state?” said state Rep. Karla May, D-St. Louis.  “That is not fair.”

I…have a problem with taking public monies and putting them in private schools,” said state Rep. Brandon Ellington, D-Kansas City.  “But we’re not talking about that because we want to say that we’re here to fix the transfer issue, which is a lie – because if we were here to fix the transfer issue, this bill would strictly be about transfers.”

Other lawmakers objected to eliminating free transportation for transfer students from the bill.

“For the poorest kids in unaccredited districts, there is not a clear fix to cover their transportation to receiving districts, if we do this,” said state Rep. Jeff Grisamore, R-Lee’s Summit.  “If you’re not providing them a (school) bus, it’s going to be incumbent on their parents, often a single parent, to be able to get them 20 (or) 25 miles to a receiving district, and that’s just not even realistic or possible.”

Supporters argued that it’s not a perfect bill, but that it would provide relief to both sending and receiving school districts. 

“I can talk about how the bill isn’t perfect, we all know it’s not perfect, but what is less perfect is not doing anything,” said state Rep. Vicki Englund, D-Green Park.

Englund also echoed what her state senator, Scott Sifton, D-Affton, said on the Senate floor Wednesday:

“No. 1: I would like the governor to sign this bill – I would like him to sign it because we need to start fixing these problems.  No. 2:  If the governor is not going to sign it, veto it immediately.  If you don’t like it, get it over with, get it done, because then we need to call a special session to fix it – because if we are truly about solving these problems, we need to come up here and do it – no more talking.”

State Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, handled the bill in the House and got the last word in before the vote.

“If we do nothing, if we don’t pass this bill, then the chaos that’s occurring in the transfer program now, which is bankrupting school districts, will continue…. We need to address this issue today and now,” Stream said.

Roughly 2,200 students have transferred from Normandy and Riverview Gardens this school year, costing the two districts around $15 million.  Lawmakers approved an extra $2 million in the state’s supplemental budget so Normandy students could finish out the school year.

According to the Riverview Gardens district, it is paying tuition for 230 students in the Mehlville School District and 176 in Kirkwood. The total amount the district has spent in transportation to date is $566,325.

In Normandy, 453 students opted to attend Francis Howell.Transportation for these students totaled $687,253 through March 2014. Tuition for student transfers totals almost $8 million February 2014.

Senate Bill 493 passed 89 to 66, well short of the 109 needed to overcome a potential veto from Nixon.  Seven Democrats joined the GOP majority in voting “yes,” while 24 Republicans joined most Democrats in voting “no.” It got a much better reception from the Senate, where it passed 28 to 3.

The governor remains strongly opposed to the private option, although he still stops short of saying he will veto the proposed student transfer fix.  He said on Tuesday that it was too early to talk about calling lawmakers back for a special session.

Dale Singer provided information for this story.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

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