May 25, 2015

Missouri lawmakers disagree whether transfer bill helps Normandy schools

Backers and opponents of the transfer legislation that came out of the state Legislature this year both say they’re concerned the St. Louis-area Normandy school district will go bankrupt, but opponents say the legislation only push it closer to lapsing.

Rep. Joe Adams (D-University City)

Rep. Joe Adams (D-University City)

Representative Joe Adams (D-University City) is one of those critics.

“It’s a mechanism to take away their resources so they can’t do anything,” says Adams of the bill. “Before all this mess happened, Normandy had a huge budget surplus. It’s all gone. It’s ripped away from them.”

Some supporters say the measure addresses some of the social issues in Ferguson. Representative Clem Smith (D-Velda Village Hills) disagrees and says the proposal allows other districts to benefit.

“It’s almost like stealing a pension check from your grandmother,” said Smith. “She’s in the hospital. She’s sick. You’ve got her on life support. You can’t move but you can cash her pension check.”

Senate bill sponsor David Pearce (R-Warrensburg) says the bill is a good compromise.

Senator David Pearce (R-Warrensburg)

Senator David Pearce (R-Warrensburg)

“Ideally, if we can educate students in their home communities, that’s the best way to do it,” says Pearce. “The closer you can keep education to home is best for everyone. That doesn’t always work and so I think House Bill 42 provides us great options.”

The proposal would allow children in unaccredited school districts to transfer to higher-performing ones and places no limits on the amount of tuition charged for transfer students. The Governor has not said whether or not he plans to sign the measure.

MU researchers developing video game for middle school students

University of Missouri researchers are developing an educational video game for middle school students to play online.

A screenshot taken from preliminary Mission HydroSci development work.  A student is manipulating a landmass to create a watershed.

A screenshot taken from preliminary Mission HydroSci development work. A student is manipulating a landmass to create a watershed.

The U.S. Department of Education has awarded a group of researchers at the University $2.7 million to develop the game for students studying off-campus.  With matching corporate funds, the University has $3.1 million to support the project.

MU Assistant Professor Sean Goggins said Mission HydroSci is a story based, leveled game that teaches students how water systems work on Earth.

“We hope to develop a game that is engaging and fun for middle school students to play so that they learn and become interested in critical concepts related to hydro science and earth science, and that interest and engagement that comes from the fun of playing a game helps students to be interested in science and pursue science and math orientated careers,” said Goggins.  “It’s very much like a Sim City for earth science.”

Goggins said more middle school students are learning online every year.

“What we’re trying to do with Mission HydroSci is use where kids are and provide an engaging game that helps them learn important scientific principles,” said Goggins.  “The student’s life is already at the screen and Mission HydroSci is focused on bringing science learning to where the kids already are.”

A screenshot taken from preliminary Mission HydroSci development work.  A student is defending claims to the supervisor.

A screenshot taken from preliminary Mission HydroSci development work. A student is defending claims to the supervisor.

Goggins said researchers have been developing prototypes of games like Mission HydroSci for two years.  Goggins said the game is now being tested by Missouri middle school students.

“We have a working prototype that we developed in advance of getting the money and at this point we are on schedule to have a working first version of the game by mid-summer,” said Goggins.  “From there we plan to build and test levels of the game, so the first set of students that go through will be level one and we’ll finish level two by sometime at the end of the year.”

Goggins is responsible for the development of automated learning analytics and automated assessment that he says will help teachers know which students are successfully completing the game and which students require additional help.  The video game would collect data on students’ performances so that teachers could adjust it to address individual needs.

Goggins said right now it’s a PC computer based game, but researchers are working to deploy it on other platforms such as MAC computers and iPads.

Missouri legislature proposes limits on scholarships for immigrants

The state legislature has passed a bill that would keep immigrants who aren’t legally in the U.S. from getting money from the state’s A-Plus scholarship program.

Representative Scott Fitzpatrick (photo credit; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Scott Fitzpatrick (photo credit; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The program allows Missouri high school students to earn two years of tuition at a qualifying community college, paid by a grant from the state. It is available to students who have a “lawful presence” in the United States.

Representative Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob) says federal changes to the definition of “lawful presence” mean a new group of students could soon become eligible for the program, unless the legislature tells the Education Department it can’t take that rule making action.

“This change is necessary or else the department will begin giving illegal immigrants A-Plus scholarships without a vote of the general assembly,” said Fitzpatrick.

Republicans say the dollars that support the scholarships are already stretched thin, and say opening it up to a new population would further reduce how much each student could receive.

“If you add another group of students on to the program, the only way that you can do that is by reducing the amount of money that you’re going to make available for the Missouri citizens, kids who are already on the scholarship program,” said Fitzpatrick.

“We’re at the point where the kids are having to pay for one credit hour,” said Representative Shawn Rhoads (R-West Plains). “I really think if this program opens up even more to non-residents or whatever, then I think we’re creating a financial burden.”

Representative Lauren Arthur (D-Kansas City) said the bill would punish students who have played by the book.

“There are a handful of students in this state who were brought here as a young child, often without any decision-making ability, and have not been granted citizenship. However, as law-abiding, contributing members of society, these students came forward with their situation to earn lawfully present status under federal guidelines,” said Arthur.

“I appreciate that A-Plus funds are limited, however this legislation does not fix the problem. The legislators’ self-created general revenue problems should not become the problems of qualified A-Plus students,” Arthur argued.

The plan has been sent to the governor. If he vetoes it, backers in the House would have to come up with at least one more vote than it received on passage, to overturn him.

Missouri legislature sends governor plan to change transfer law

The state legislature has sent Governor Jay Nixon (D) a bill backers say will help schools struggling financially because of Missouri’s student transfer law. Opponents say it’s a bill hijacked by Republicans to expand charter and virtual schools and they’re calling on Nixon to veto it.

Representative David Wood carried the transfer legislation in the House.  (photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative David Wood carried the transfer legislation in the House. (photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The transfer law lets students in poor performing schools transfer to better-performing ones, with the sending district having to pay tuition for those students. That law has left some school districts, such as Normandy in the St. Louis region, close to insolvency.

The bill would have accreditation decided by individual schools within districts rather than by district, so that students in failing schools could go to a better performing building rather than another district.

It would also expand access to charter and virtual schools, which House sponsor David Wood (R-Versailles) and other backers say gives students another option closer to home.

“I believe every part of this will work. It may not be the best solution. It may not be the easiest solution, but we have a pathway for this to work,” said Wood.

Representative Genise Montecillo (D-St. Louis) said the bill was not about addressing the issues with the transfer bill, but was only a charter school expansion proposal.

The bill also proposes having a private company run an expanded virtual school program; a provision Montecillo equated to the “private option” that Nixon cited as his reason for vetoing a transfer bill last year, that would have allowed tax dollars to go to private schools in some circumstances.

“This does have a private option,” Montecillo told fellow House members. “You may like or dislike a private option. We have disagreements about that as well. Okay, I’m fine with that, but let’s don’t pretend this does not and this is not a private option.”

Shortly after the House passed the bill, its Democratic caucus issued a statement from Representative Clem Smith (D-Velda Village Hills) saying he hopes the bill is vetoed by Nixon since it didn’t get enough votes in his chamber to overturn a veto. In talking to Smith on the floor, Representative Karla May (D-St. Louis City) told Smith the bill won’t help Normandy.

“To say that it’s to assist a school district that we’ve already failed is appalling to me,” said May.

Representative Tommie Pierson (D-St. Louis), who last year was very vocal in calling on Nixon to veto that transfer bill, disagrees with May and Smith.

“I agree with most people who have spoken on this bill that it is not perfect,” Pierson told Wood, “But to do nothing would be worse than voting for this bill.”

With the bill having been passed by the legislature only last night, Nixon has not said what he would do with it.

His spokesman Scott Holste tells Missourinet the bill, “will undergo a fair and comprehensive review after it reaches the Governor’s desk.”


Missouri auditor: traffic fine money not getting to the right schools

The state auditor’s office says if more money is going to be coming to the state under the Mack’s Creek law, the state needs to get that money where it’s supposed to go.

The little town of Macks Creek was disbursed after a state law was created said municipalities could no longer make most of their annual revenue with traffic tickets and fines.  That law now bears the former town's name.

The little town of Macks Creek was disbursed after a state law was created said municipalities could no longer make most of their annual revenue with traffic tickets and fines. That law now bears the former town’s name.

That money, which comes from cities that collect too high a percentage of their annual revenue from traffic tickets and fines, is supposed to go back to schools in the same county it came from.

Chief litigation counsel for the state auditor’s office, Darrell Moore, says instead it’s going into funds from which it is disbursed to schools statewide.

“Some of those counties did receive money back but were shortchanged,” Moore told Missourinet. “St. Louis County was seriously shortchanged, to the tune of about $197,000.”

That was in February of this year, alone. In the same month, St. Francois County in eastern Missouri lost about $37,000 and Crawford County in east-central Missouri lost more than $1500.

The auditor’s office thinks the state Office of Administration and the Department of Revenue are using a different interpretation of where that money should go.

“They need to work with the legislature to make sure that everybody’s on the same page,” said Moore. “Of course our argument is the money should have been returned to the counties where the money originated from to be distributed to the school districts in that county. If they disagree with us, we believe they ought to work with the legislature to fix that one section that already exists.”

The legislature has this session been considering changes to the current Mack’s Creek law to further restrict how much money cities can make from traffic tickets and fines, and Moore said the auditor’s office is trying to capitalize on that.

“We’re not trying to chastise anybody,” said Moore. “We’re just saying now that this is coming back to life and money’s actually coming in, it needs to be looked at.”

The law currently says cities shouldn’t make more than 30-percent of their annual revenue from traffic tickets and fines.