With a controversial student-transfer law on the books that has one school district teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and others that could follow, Missouri education officials and lawmakers are grappling with vexing questions about what role the state should play in struggling districts before they near that tipping point.
While much of the debate has focused on the state’s most troubled systems that lost accreditation—Kansas City, and Normandy and Riverview Gardens in the St. Louis area—both the state education department and legislators are in the midst of shaping policies that will have implications for the more than 500 districts around the state.
But some traditional educators, along with advocates for community and faith-based groups, are worried that many of the state’s policymakers are more interested in promoting charter schools than in preserving and improving regular public schools, especially in poor and minority neighborhoods.
“Parents want their schools intact,” said Carolyn Randazzo, the chairwoman of the education taskforce for Metropolitan Congregations United for St. Louis. Her group has been arguing that any policy changes should include supports for struggling districts, such as early-childhood-education programs, parental-involvement initiatives, wraparound services for students living in poverty, and professional development for teachers and staff members.
“When communities lose their schools, they dissolve,” she said.
Members of the Missouri legislature have introduced a slew of bills in the current session to overhaul the state’s 1993 student-transfer law, which lets students attend school in a different district when their home district loses accreditation.
The law—which was upheld in two separate rulings last year by the state supreme court—requires unaccredited districts to pay transportation and tuition costs for the students who elect to transfer.
Among the leading proposals is a bill that calls for the education department to determine the accreditation status of individual schools, in addition to districts, and would allow students in an unaccredited district to transfer to secular private schools. Other measures would seek to cap the tuition payments the home districts are required to pay.
In the unaccredited Normandy district, the price tag for paying for the more than 1,000 students who chose to transfer to other St. Louis-area districts last fall is expected to exceed $15 million and has put the viability of the district’s operations beyond the current school year in serious doubt. The district still educates 3,000 students.
Meanwhile, state Commissioner of Education Chris L. Nicastro has crafted a plan to broaden the state education department’s authority to intervene in districts that show signs of trouble, as well as those that have lost accreditation. The state school board could vote on the proposal later this month.
“Prior to last year, the state board was very limited in what it could do to intervene in our low-performing districts,” said Ms. Nicastro, who successfully lobbied in 2013 for passage of a law that gave the state board greater authority.
“We need an intervention system in place that allows us to customize for the needs of districts and schools,” she said.
Specifically, Ms. Nicastro’s plan calls for a range of supports and interventions the state could use that could become more heavy-handed depending on the district’s specific troubles.
Among the intervention options in the plan for schools without full accreditation are requiring performance contracts between districts and the state education department, replacing the elected local school board with an appointed panel, and, in the most extreme cases, disbanding a district and turning its schools over to a neighboring district or a state-run entity akin to the Recovery School District in Louisiana or Tennessee’s Achievement School District.
Ms. Nicastro said that much of the debate about what the state should do to bolster failing districts has been “polluted” by the student-transfer issue, though she said it’s the legislature’s responsibility to deal with modifying that law. She said she expects that any changes ultimately made to the transfer law will still preserve students’ rights to move from unaccredited districts to higher-performing ones, but perhaps with more limitations.
“The stakes are very high for a number of our students,” said Ms. Nicastro. “But our main focus is going to be on preventing these districts from losing accreditation in the first place and on ensuring that we have quality school options in all communities.”
Mistrust From Communities
But the schools chief has not escaped criticism of her intentions in addressing failing districts.
Earlier this year, a draft plan that Ms. Nicastro had commissioned from the Indianapolis-based nonprofit group CEE-Trust, a supporter of charter schools, called for shutting down districts that have lost accreditation and eventually turning schools over to nonprofit operators that would have charter-like independence over budgeting, hiring, and curriculum.
That proposal drew heavy fire from community activists and parents, especially in Kansas City, who viewed the plan as a blueprint for disbanding the beleaguered district.
Jan Parks, who chairs the education task force for the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity, a Kansas City advocacy group, said people were relieved that most features of the CEE-Trust report did not make it into Ms. Nicastro’s proposal. But mistrust lingers, she said.
The 17,000-student Kansas City system, which lost its accreditation a little over two years ago after years of underperformance, has been working to claw its way back.
Last fall, the district petitioned to have its status bumped up to “provisionally accredited,” after growth in test scores and improving financial stability earned the district enough points under the state accreditation system, said R. Stephen Green, Kansas City’s superintendent. Ms. Nicastro wants to see another year of progress before changing the status.
“We are in full-court-press, high-intensity mode,” said Mr. Green. “We’ve made progress for two years straight, even when the state accountability system changed, giving us a higher hill to climb.”
Mr. Green said that the district lost a handful of students to transfers this school year, but that without a move to provisional status later this year, it would become “even more exposed.” He expects that students’ test scores on upcoming state assessments will show more progress.
“If it’s about reversing a downward spiral and demonstrating continuous improvement, our teachers, administrators, our board, and our district are a model for that,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as Missouri Weighs Steps for Intervening in Troubled Schools