Missouri's Student Transfer Law

 
 
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Missouri's Student Transfer Law

Earlier this month, Governor Mike Parson signed the state’s most recent education omnibus bill, which included a “fix” for the state’s student transfer program. For some of the other items in the education bill, you can read our Legislative session wrap-up blog. To fully understand this transfer fix, we’re taking a look back at the student transfer program’s history and how it plays into conversations around public school accreditation and accountability. 

Like other states, school districts in Missouri must be accredited in order to educate students. Missouri’s accreditation decisions are tied directly to school and district performance in the state’s accountability system and the data collected to calculate the Annual Performance Report. Along with the supporting data to measure performance outcomes, the State Board of Education and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education consider the following in a school’s accreditation decision: 

  • Comprehensive School Improvement Plan,

  • Previous Missouri School Improvement Program (MSIP) performance,

  • Financial status,

  • Compliance with state regulations and statutes, and

  • Superintendent certification

Districts failing to achieve at least 50 percent of the possible points are rated as unaccredited, often due to poor academic performance and other concerns like financial mismanagement. Once a district loses its accreditation, students who reside within the district boundary are then able to take advantage of a provision in the Outstanding Schools Act of 1993 allowing them to transfer to nearby districts at the expense of the unaccredited district.

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A major portion of the state’s transfer program establishes rules and regulations for districts choosing not to maintain a high school, including paying an established tuition rate for students to attend high school in a different district. This bill also includes requirements for unaccredited districts to cover the cost of tuition for students transferring to a different district. 

This transfer rule became a big issue in 2007 when St. Louis Public Schools lost its accreditation and families living within the SLPS boundary who were paying tuition for their children to enroll in Clayton argued that SLPS should now cover these tuition costs. This eventually made it to a St. Louis Circuit Court judge who ruled in favor of the districts. However, the state supreme court would eventually hear arguments in Breitenfeld v. School District of Clayton and ruled in favor of the families and would allow students to transfer out at the expense of the unaccredited districts.

When students enrolling in unaccredited districts transfer, the receiving district charges the sending district tuition for each student who transfers. The sending district receives the local, state, and federal dollars associated with all students who would enroll in their schools, but the sending district has to pay the district that is educating the students who transfer. Additionally, unaccredited districts are required to choose one district for which they will also cover the cost of tuition. Any student not choosing this partner district covers the cost of transportation.

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Currently, there are no unaccredited districts in Missouri. However, Normandy was unaccredited between 2013 and 2017 and Riverview Gardens (RGSD) was unaccredited between 2007 and 2016. Following the Breitenfeld decision, these two districts had to cover the cost of tuition for students who chose to transfer. Normandy chose to cover the cost of transportation to Francis Howell School District in St. Charles County, while Riverview Gardens partnered with Mehlville. Mehlville was unable to accommodate all of the transfers, so RGSD added Kirkwood as a second option for transportation. Interestingly, the districts Normandy and RGSD chose were quite a bit larger and predominantly white. In the spring of 2014, Francis Howell’s school board voted unanimously to no longer accept students transferring from Normandy unless forced to by law.

Once Normandy and RGSD made their way back to being accredited in 2017 and 2016 respectively, no new students were allowed to transfer out. However, any student who had previously left would be able to remain at their chosen school through the end of middle/junior high or high school, whichever came first. Therefore, these districts are still covering the cost of tuition for students who transferred. This is not cheap, as the most recent data provided by DESE show that Normandy paid over $7 million for nearly 600 students and RGSD paid over $4 million for just over 400 students who transferred.

While losing students through transfers is expensive, there are other concerns for districts losing accreditation. Missouri allows charter schools to open in an unaccredited district or in districts classified as provisionally accredited for three consecutive years. This could present more competition and affect more decisions made at the district level. Currently, no charter schools have opened in an unaccredited district and still only operate in Kansas City and St. Louis.

While a provisionally accredited district does not have to pay tuition for students who transfer out, once a district moves from unaccredited to provisionally accredited, they must stay at that level for at least 5 years. If a district fails to maintain provisional accreditation, the State Board has the ability to close the district entirely. 

Districts have gotten a little wiggle room in their accreditation decision, as Missouri requires the year after any changes to standards or assessment to serve as a pilot year and not be considered in a district’s accreditation status. This is vital due to the many changes to standards and testing Missouri has undergone over the last decade, the most of recent of which came in 2017. While that did provide some breathing room to improve some of the other areas considered for accreditation, achievement score performance from this past school year can now be considered in accreditation decisions.

Whether DESE and the State Board opt to make these difficult decisions regarding accreditation remains to be seen. However, with 9 provisionally accredited districts currently operating across the state, there is a chance the transfer conversation could resurface in the near future. 

 

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