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Missouri Student-Transfer Bill Could Founder On Private-School Vouchers

A measure intended to fix Missouri's much-maligned law that allows students to transfer out of unaccredited school districts won approval from lawmakers last week, but may be doomed by a provision that would establish a voucher-like program.

The legislation awaits action from Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon who has said he believes the voucher component of the bill—which would permit students to use taxpayer dollars to attend nonsectarian private schools—is unconstitutional. To be eligible for the vouchers, students would have to be attending school in an unaccredited district for at least three years in one of three jurisdictions: Jackson County (where Kansas City is located), the city of St. Louis, and St. Louis County.

Nixon, who has never supported vouchers, told reporters this week that the issue is at the top of his priority list as he reviews hundreds of pieces of legislation.

Since 1993, Missouri law has allowed students to transfer out of their unaccredited school systems to nearby, accredited districts. That arrangement has left three school systems that are currently without accreditation—Kansas City, along with Normandy and Riverview Gardens in the St. Louis area—in precarious financial circumstances because they are responsible for paying the costs for students who transfer to receiving districts. That has nearly bankrupted the Normandy school district this year after 1,000 of its students chose to transfer to neighboring districts to the tune of $15 million.

The new legislation would help reduce the strain on districts that lose accreditation or are on the verge of doing so by requiring that accreditation be done on a school-by-school basis. Those accredited schools within a district would be the first stop for students who want to transfer from a district school without accreditation.

Among other things, however, the measure would permit receiving districts that agree to charge lower tuition rates for transfer students to exclude their test scores from schools' performance reports for five years. That, no doubt, is highly objectionable to accountability hawks and civil rights advocates. The bill also authorizes accredited districts to sponsor new charter schools in an unaccredited school system, though current state law only allows for charters to operate in Kansas City and St. Louis.

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