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Missouri Lawmaker Seeks Justice Dept. Probe of Education in St. Louis Area

A Missouri lawmaker is asking the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the "administration of education" in the St. Louis region.

In an Aug. 6 letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal says that students in the St. Louis region are being denied the right to transfer to better-performing school districts despite a state supreme court ruling saying that they can do so under the state student transfer law, according to The Missouri Times.

Those students, Chappelle-Nadal wrote, are "being denied their fundamental right to an adequate education in Missouri."  

"These students have been abandoned by our Governor, who has twice vetoed bipartisan legislation to strengthen our transfer law and who continues to do nothing to remedy this intolerable situation" Chappelle-Nadal, a Democrat, continued. "Since Missouri's leaders have abdicated their responsibilities to our children, I am turning to your office in the hopes that justice might prevail in this matter."

Missouri 1993 school transfer law, which allows students who attend unaccredited school districts to transfer to better performing ones with the home district shouldering the cost, is a controversial piece of legislation. State lawmakers have been trying, unsuccessfully, to fix it for the last two legislative sessions. The law was struck down by a County Circuit Court in 2012, but was later upheld as constitutional by the state's Supreme Court.

The financial toll of the transfers has weighed heavily on the unaccredited districts. According to St. Louis Public Radio, Normandy Schools Collaborative and Riverview Gardens, the two unaccredited school districts in St. Louis County, estimated in Aug. 2013 that the transfers cost the two districts about $35.4 million.

Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has vetoed the proposed fixes to the school transfer law two years in a row. In his June 26 statement explaining his veto, Nixon said the proposal did not sufficiently address the problems in the current law. Changes this year would have allowed students in unaccredited schools to transfer to accredited schools within the same districts and to transfer to virtual and charter schools. 

Nixon said the bill, HB 42, veered far off course.

"By the time it got to my desk, it mandated expensive voucher schemes, neglected accountability, and skirted the major, underlying difficulties in the transfer law, while creating a host of potential new problems for districts across the state," he said.

He listed four major concerns:

  • Taxpayers would pay for private vouchers for students to attend virtual schools, while those schools had no public accountability or oversight by a school board.
  • The bill created more bureaucracy and larger mandates.
  • There was no reasonable tuition limit that receiving districts could charge transferring students, which would continue to drain financial resources from the sending districts.
  • Hundreds of transfer students could be forced to return to their resident districts, a process Nixon said would be "disruptive, counterproductive and unfair to students and their families.

Days before vetoing the transfer law, Nixon announced that nearly two dozen schools in the St. Louis County area had pledged to come together to help the unaccredited districts gain accreditation. They pledged to offer reduced tuition for transferring students, professional development for teachers, instructional coaches to help with AP classes, and other remedies.  

A more detailed picture of how the collaborative planned to work was released on Aug. 4.  

The aim of the group, the St. Louis Regional Collaborative for Educational Excellence, is to help Normandy and Riverview Gardens to gain accreditation by the 2017-2018 school year. The objective, according to the Aug. 4 statement of principles, is to achieve "dramatic change that can be sustained beyond a two-year period." The update included detailed plans from Normandy and Riverview Gardens on how they planned to achieve the turnaround and highlighted the partnerships among the districts in the collaborative. 

In another letter posted on her website and addressed to her colleagues in the General Assembly, Chappelle-Nadal urged Republican lawmakers to override Nixon's veto and pass the school transfer law when the legislature returns to Jefferson City next month. 

She says that Nixon "has failed the children of St. Louis for far too long."

"I am respectfully asking you to think about the children in my region who are trapped in some of our worst-performing buildings," she wrote.  "I ask you to consider what you would do if the children in your district were forced to attend these wholly inadequate schools. As Republicans, your party long ago freed the slaves in support of the sanctity of life. I am pleading with you to stop this well-organized effort to enslave children in substandard school buildings. This is a moral call." 

A spokesman for Gov. Nixon on Friday declined to comment on Chappelle-Nadal's letters and referred back to Nixon's veto message in which he detailed the reasons for vetoing this year's school transfer proposal and the efforts by the districts to collaboratively work to improve education for students in the region. 

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