JEFFERSON CITY - St. Louis and Kansas City Catholic school leaders offered to take students from failing urban districts at a Senate Committee hearing Tuesday.
The offer came during a Senate General Laws Committee hearing on bills to address the unaccredited St. Louis, Kansas City and the St. Louis County Riverview Gardens school districts. Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County, led the efforts.
Superintendent for Catholic Schools in the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese Dr. Dan Peters told the committee his schools could provide a quality education for half the cost of public schools. Associate Superintendent for the St. Louis Archdiocese Dr. Robert Oliveri also told Senators his schools have about 7,700 empty seats to accommodate students from St. Louis Public Schools.
"We want to allow students like ours the chance to choose a caring educational environment," said Leon Henderson, President of Cardinal Ritter Catholic High School in St. Louis.
In 2010, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a law in Turner v. Clayton that allows students living in unaccredited school districts to go to an accredited school in a adjacent county. In St. Louis, county schools have resisted letting students from St. Louis City enroll, citing a lack of availability.
Cunningham's plan allows St. Louis City students to attend county schools, but also allows those same schools to set limits on enrollment. The bill also includes a tax credit, which opponents call "vouchers", allowing students in unaccredited districts to attend private schools.
St. Louis firefighter Andrew Hesse said his family would take full advantage of the tax credit to attend a private school. Hesse tried to enroll his three children in the St. Louis County Webster Groves district only to be denied. He has joined a lawsuit against other suburban schools in an effort to force them to enroll his kids. Due to residency rules for firefighters, Hesse is not permitted to live outside of St. Louis City.
Andrea Flinders of the Kansas City Federation of Teachers said these programs are not the solution, but that lawmakers need to address community needs.
"Our community is failing our kids," Flinders said.
For the Kansas City school district, Cunningham calls for an annexation of the Kansas City school district by surrounding suburban districts with stronger academic reputations.
Sen. Victor Callahan, D-Jackson County, said he supported the elimination of the Kansas City school district and the annexation by surrounding districts. Callahan said he did not support letting students flee the district and go to schools far from their home.
"It only makes sense to have kids go to schools in their neighborhood," Callahan said.
In 2007 voters in Kansas City and Independence opted for a similar plan, voting for a boundary change moving 35,000 students from the Kansas City school district to the Independence district. Interim Superintendent for Kansas City, Dr. Steve Green, testified in opposition to the annexation.
"We are best equipped to serve those students," Green said.
Green said it could take at least 2 or 3 years before the district again reaches full accreditation, although he said the schools are already making some progress.
The committee did not take action on the proposals presented to them Tuesday.