- Associated Press - Monday, May 12, 2014

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Facing a looming deadline, Missouri lawmakers began meeting Monday to work on legislation that would revise a school transfer law requiring struggling schools to pay for students to enroll elsewhere.

The Senate and House each have approved their own versions of the measure, but both chambers must approve the same version by the end of the business day Friday.

“I think they’re closing the gap,” said Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles.

Missouri legislators are seeking to revise the 1993 student transfer law after recent decisions by the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the requirement for unaccredited districts to pay the costs of transferring students.

Transfers have occurred during the current academic year in the suburban St. Louis districts of Riverview Gardens and Normandy, and the financial strain prompted the state to approve funding to ensure Normandy makes it through the school year. The Kansas City district also is unaccredited.

Among the differences to be resolved is how much unaccredited districts pay for transfers and how a private school option would work. The House and Senate have included provisions that could allow for students to transfer to private schools at local taxpayers’ expense - but the chambers have endorsed different approaches.

Under the Senate’s version, students who attend a struggling school and cannot move to a better-performing one within their unaccredited district could transfer to a nonreligious private school located within the district where they live. The unaccredited district would pay private school tuition using local tax revenues.

The measure that passed the House would limit the private school option to students in St. Louis city, St. Louis County and Jackson County. Local voters also must authorize it.

Gov. Jay Nixon has voiced reservations about the idea of letting students in unaccredited districts transfer to nonreligious private schools at public expense. He said funding for schools already is limited.

“The Missouri Constitution, and me, both believe that you shouldn’t take public money and spend it on private schools,” Nixon said.

Another issue that must be resolved deals with tuition.

The House version calls for unaccredited districts to pay 70 percent of their costs for student transfers, plus additional money for transportation costs. Senators made it optional for unaccredited districts to pay transportation costs and created an incentive for receiving school districts to offer a tuition discount.

Senate Education Committee Chairman David Pearce, who is sponsoring the legislation, said tuition is a significant decision because it “speaks to the finances of it.” Pearce, R-Warrensburg, said he hopes to come to agreement Tuesday.

“I don’t want to wait until the very last minute,” he said.

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