The state legislature has passed a bill meant to fix the state law that lets students transfer out of failing school districts. The proposal has been a priority for many lawmakers who say that law is bankrupting unaccredited school districts, particularly Normandy and Riverview Gardens in the St. Louis area.
The bill contains a controversial “private option” for Jackson County, St. Louis and St. Louis County that could result in it being vetoed by Governor Jay Nixon (D). It would have the state accredit school buildings as well as districts. Students in an unaccredited school within an unaccredited district would first have the option to transfer to an accredited building in the same district. If no slots were available in those, one option would be for students to transfer to a nonreligious private school with local tax revenue from the sending district used to pay tuition.
Nixon has suggested he would veto any bill that includes any mechanism sending tax dollars to private schools, saying that is where he had to “draw a line.” The bill received a strong enough vote in the Senate to overturn a veto, but fell 20 votes short of that mark when the House passed it on Thursday. Neither chamber’s vote followed party lines.
Representative Clem Smith (D-Velda Village Hills) said he was the only lawmaker in either the House or the Senate who represents the Normandy School District, and he opposes the bill. He says it shouldn’t be called a transfer bill, joining other critics who said it was really an attempt to break the barrier keeping tax dollars from going to private schools.
“You’ve got kids in Normandy and Riverview that have been used to push vouchers,” said Smith. “And it’s a forced voucher, because you can vote it down in an unaccredited district but after three years it’s forced, it’s rammed down your throat … in my view, that’s all this bill is about.”
Some Republicans were also opposed to the private option. Representative Jeff Grisamore (R-Lee’s Summit) says he campaigned against using tax dollars in private schools when he first ran for the House, but said he was “torn” on how to vote on the bill.
“Public schools should be publicly funded and private schools should be privately funded, period,” said Grisamore. “And why would we take away funding from public education, give it to private education, when we are not meeting our obligations fully for the formula for public education.”
Proponents argued that the private option was a small piece of the legislation and called the bill a compromise that would stave off disaster in failing schools. Representative Kevin Engler (R-Farmington) says opponents of the bill including Nixon don’t have a plan of their own that would pass the Senate.
Engler argued if the bill does not become law, school districts in danger of becoming bankrupt would have to be supplemented from state General Revenue.
“We’re going to have to put money in the budget that’s going to come from my school district to keep them alive,” says Engler. He says opponents of the bill including Nixon don’t have a plan of their own that would pass in the Senate.
Representative Vicki Englund (D-St. Louis) worked on the conference committee that came up with the final version of the bill. She urged Nixon to sign the bill but said whether he signs or vetoes it, he should act quickly.
“Get it over with, get it done, because then we need to call a special session to fix it,” said Englund. “Because if we are truly about solving these problems we need to come up here and do it.”