As promised, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed on Tuesday the wide-ranging school transfer bill passed by lawmakers this year, saying it violates basic principles of public education and does nothing to help students trapped in unaccredited schools.
At the offices of Education Plus in west St. Louis County, the governor listed three main reasons for his action.
- The bill allows public money to be used for tuition at non-sectarian private schools, a move that Nixon said violates the Missouri constitution.
- It removes the possibility that students who transfer from Normandy or Riverview Gardens will have their transportation paid to an accredited district, making it impossible for many of them to attend a new school.
- Finally, it allows for what the governor called a “cynical bargain” that would let receiving school districts discount the tuition to be paid for transfer students in exchange for not having to count the test scores of those students in the districts’ accountability report for up to five years.
Overall, he said, the legislation – Senate Bill 493 – “would make a difficult situation even worse by diverting public funds to private schools and imposing new financial hardships on students and families.
“Not only does Senate Bill 493 exacerbate the hardships faced by children who attend unaccredited schools. Senate Bill 493 would undermine our schools, shortchange students, and impose new financial hardships on families. It cannot become law.”
In short, he said, instead of improving the lot of students in unaccredited districts, it makes all the wrong moves.
“This bill does not solve any of their problems,” Nixon said. “It makes their problems worse.”
At a news conference, Nixon praised the work of the state board of education in charting a new course for Normandy, which will lapse at the end of this month and be replaced by the Normandy Schools Collaborative, run by an appointed board.
And he criticized the Francis Howell school district, which decided last week that because the new Normandy will have no accreditation status and their students are therefore not entitled by law to transfer, it will no longer allow Normandy students to enroll there in the coming school year. About 350 Normandy students attended Francis Howell in the past school year.
“We may be comprised of many communities,” Nixon said of the decision by Francis Howell, "but we are one state whose promise rests within the success of every student. To turn our back on a single child is to turn our back on our own future.”
Nixon said he did not expect to call a special session to have lawmakers craft a different bill to meet his specifications. Senate Bill 493 passed in the Senate with a veto-proof majority but fell about 20 votes short in the House.
He rejected the criticism of many lawmakers who say that during the legislative session, as they worked to craft the bill that ended up being 135 pages and covered a wide range of educational issues, the governor’s office was not actively engaged in the process. He said that as soon as the use of public school money for private school tuition was raised, he soundly criticized it.
“I said time and time again that vouchers were not the right solution,” Nixon said.
On that note, he said that not only would paying private school tuition with tax dollars hurt public education, but it also would violate the constitution and go against what most residents of the state believe.
“Missourians don’t support vouchers,” he said. “Missourians understand that our schools, of all of the challenges our schools have, having too many resources is not one of those problems, OK. And if you take public money against the constitution and begin to give that to private schools, than you begin to undermine public education.”
As far as the provision to let receiving districts get a discounted tuition in exchange for not having to count the test scores of transfer students in their own district evaluations for up to five years, Nixon said:
“When you differentiate kids, on what their test scores might have been last year or what district they might have come from, and you say oh, you’re one kind of kid ad we don’t have to count you, you don’t have to do as well, that’s not what public education is about.”
He said a better approach is what the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state board of education are doing for Normandy, using an appointed board made up of local residents and a plan for academic improvements.
Asked what he thought of the work of Chris Nicastro, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, he called her an “active and able participant in very challenging issues, and I appreciate her energy and commitment.”
The state board voted last week to give the new Normandy district no accreditation status at all but to allow students there to transfer to the same districts they attended last year. But instead of paying tuition of up to $20,000, with an average of about $12,000, it set the tuition rate at $7,200. It also gave districts the option to refuse to take transfers, as Francis Howell voted last week.
For Riverview Gardens, which remains unaccredited, DESE said it hopes receiving districts will charge the same discounted tuition rate as has been imposed for Normandy students, but the state cannot mandate that move.
Reaction to veto
Nixon’s veto brought quick criticism from groups that had backed the actions in Senate Bill 493.
StudentsFirst, a nationwide organization founded by Michelle Rhee, called Nixon’s actions unfortunate, saying the governor “has decided to deny Missouri students trapped in failing schools the opportunity to receive a high quality education. In a bipartisan fashion, over the past year, legislators have been working tirelessly to address student transfers while the governor has been disengaged, ignoring this critical issue.”
Kit Crancer, the group’s director in Missouri, added: "I commend the legislature for noting that a true 'fix' involves ensuring students have access to a high quality education, not bowing to political expediency by simply changing a law to safeguard adult interests. I urge the legislature to override the governor’s veto so Missouri’s kids are not forced to attend failing schools for another year.”
The Missouri Charter Public School Association noted that the veto kills language in the bill that it said would have strengthened charter school law in the state. Among the changes, the bill would have authorized additional sponsors for charters and improved the process for granting charters the right to open.
“Without these necessary changes,” the group said in a statement, “Gov. Nixon's veto compromises the ability to ensure that every child in Missouri has access to a quality public education. This is particularly true in unaccredited districts where the needs are greatest.”
But critics of the bill agreed with Nixon that it created as many problems as it solved.
Speaking after Nixon had announced his intention to veto the legislation but before Tuesday’s action, Eric Knost, who was superintendent of the Mehlville schools when they received transfers from Riverview Gardens and will soon become superintendent in Rockwood, said:
“I don’t know how a voucher program is a pro-active measure to helping impoverished communities. I don’t see that at all….
"It’s a bad bill. It’s reactionary. There is very, very little in the way of pro-active measures in there. I don’t think it’s a good idea. And the sad thing is the statute as it stands is something with no regulations and no real guidelines, so we’ve put ourselves right back into a situation where it’s a lawsuit frenzy and people trying to take advantage of the vague statute to advance their interests.”
Pam Sloan, superintendent in Francis Howell, put her objection this way:
“I think that the bill was lengthy, and there were some things that could have been good in it. However, I think at the end of the day, it didn’t solve the problem of how to deal with unaccredited schools.”
And Elkin Kistner, the lawyer whose clients won the suit that resulted in the transfer statute being upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court last June, said the bill would have started a new round of legal challenges.
“If that bill had been signed by the governor, there would have been litigation around it,” he said. “There was just too much uncertainty in critical areas. People don’t like it, but sometimes when you have a statute affecting important rights, and it has uncertainty in it, there’s only one choice, and that’s to get the courts involved and try to interpret it.”