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Pandemic could bolster school choice legislation

Missouri’s legislative leaders have spent the last decade vowing to pass significant school-choice legislation.

Yet despite massive GOP majorities in both the House and the Senate, they often fall short.

Since the expansion of charter schools into unaccredited districts in 2012, attempts to push through education reform have crashed into a wall of resistance year after year — resistance that spans across political, ideological and geographic lines. 

Now the top Republicans in both the Missouri House and Senate have once again declared school choice a top priority, fast tracking bills that would expand charter schools statewide and establish scholarship accounts that could be used toward things such as private school tuition.

Opposition remains steadfast, but both sides of the debate agree COVID-19’s impact on education shook up the dynamic and exposed issues in Missouri’s public education system.

“I am tired of wiping tears from my babies’ faces as they struggle to learn in this environment,” Lindi Williford, who has three daughters in the Wentzville School District, said at a Senate committee hearing late last month. “It’s not working for my family. We have to have more options.”

Yet the bills face criticism that they lack accountability standards and will ultimately only pull resources from already-struggling public schools.

“Now’s not the time to be considering legislation that is hostile to our schools whenever we’re trying to come out of a pandemic, and evaluate where we are, and move forward to improve public education for our kids,” said Brent Ghan, the deputy executive director of the Missouri School Boards Association.

In a session where work has already been delayed by COVID outbreaks and winter weather, Senate Education Committee Chair Cindy O’Laughlin’s recent bout with pneumonia has kept her away from Jefferson City for weeks and also stalled momentum on her wide-ranging school choice legislation. 

It’s reminiscent of 2019, when a charter school expansion bill was derailed when its sponsor was unable to attend the remainder of the legislative season after a car accident.

Bolstered by the pandemic

Peter Franzen, the associate executive director of the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, has been advocating for school choice measures with the organization for nearly 10 years.

“Sometimes it does feel like you’re just chopping the same log,” Franzen said, “and never quite chopping it all the way through.”

There were times when education could feel like an “out of sight, out of mind” issue for parents. But the pandemic has been a crystallizing moment that has put education at the forefront for many families, Franzen said.

“So suddenly, every parent in Missouri is acutely aware of how their kids learn,” Franzen said, “how their schools deal with families when there’s a crisis.”

It’s a situation a parade of parents have described at committee hearings in recent weeks — and it’s one lawmakers themselves aren’t a stranger to.

“It’s painful for parents, but it’s detrimental to students,” Rep. Justin Hill, R-Lake St. Louis, said at a committee hearing late last month. “My son is behind. Where is he going to make up that time?”

For some, alternatives such as learning pods, charter schools or private schools have been the answer. And it’s access to more options that many of the education reform bills hope to facilitate.

“If you are rich, you have school choice today. But if you’re middle class and you have four kids, it’s not a real option. And if you’re poor, it’s not an option,” Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, said in a committee hearing late last month. “Sometimes you have no other choice but to send your kid to a school that you think is subpar.”

But for both sides, the need for greater accountability has shaped their views.

Bills in the House and Senate would establish the “Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program,” which would allow residents to receive a tax credit for donating to certain educational assistance organizations. Those organizations would then provide scholarships to eligible students that could be used toward a variety of costs including tuition, tutoring, transportation and more. 

version of the program sponsored by Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters, would specifically cater toward public school students who have special education needs or fall below 200 percent of the income standard used to qualify for free and reduced price lunches — which is nearly $97,000 annually for a household of four in Missouri.

Increased accountability measures, such as ensuring test results are reported and assessed to measure student achievement, were also added to the bill substitute passed out of committee.

Versions of the program are estimated to cost the state as much as $50 million, and perhaps more than $100 million, annually.

Patrick Lane, a member of the Francis Howell School District Board of Education, said the program was a “tax scheme” that would funnel public dollars toward programs that have less oversight.

“This bill is trying to divert educational funds and privatize education without any guarantee to the Missouri taxpayers that the student will receive a quality education,” Lane said of Christofanelli’s bill at a House hearing late last month. 

Meanwhile, supporters say the ultimate way to hold public schools accountable would be to give parents more choices.

“When you get into a fuller, more robust choice environment, the real accountability is whether or not parents stick with a school,” Franzen said.

Charter expansion

Lawmakers are also renewing their annual push to expand charter schools across the state.

Charter schools are independent public schools that receive state funds, but are not subject to all the same regulations as public schools and can be sponsored by entities other than an elected public school board, like universities or the Missouri Charter Public School Commission.

The Missouri School Boards Association has said it would like to see them authorized by local school boards in order to ensure accountability.

Dean Johnson, a board member of the Missouri Charter Public School Association and co-founder and executive director of Crossroads Charter Schools in Kansas City, said charter schools were accountable for the same academic standards as traditional public schools. 

“If there’s something that advantages charter schools from the perception of the traditional school districts, then by all means, let’s change the law to give all students and all schools, all school administrators that same flexibility,” Johnson said during a House budget hearing late last month.

Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, said charters and savings accounts were offered as “silver bullet solutions” when that wasn’t always the case. 

Arthur was a middle school teacher at a charter school in Kansas City that closed after her second year and had over $100,000 unaccounted for in its closure process.

“I think lawmakers are well intentioned, but get distracted by these two shiny objects,” Arthur said of charter expansion and education savings accounts. “And the more comprehensive situation is a lot more difficult, and perhaps expensive and harder to solve.”

Currently, charter schools are only permitted in the Kansas City and St. Louis city school districts or in an unaccredited or provisionally accredited district.

Bills would allow charter schools to expand to any municipality with more than 30,000 residents — which would be in more than 50 school districts, according to fiscal analyses of the bills

With declining enrollment in St. Louis city, public school buildings have been shuttered while charters have both opened and closed — sometimes in just a few years time. It’s a disruption of a city’s education ecosystem that opponents said they worry will continue if charters expand across the state.

fiscal analysis for Senate Bill 55 notes that if charter schools were expanded under the bill, an estimated 22,570 students in the affected districts, or about six percent, would transfer to charter schools — which could result in a loss of roughly $100.8 million in state aid for local public school districts.

Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport and chairman of the House Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education, said the 30,000 threshold was born out of concern from rural areas that charter schools would pull students from public schools and that it was an effort to “calm those fears.”

“And that 30,000 population came about more or less as a protection for the rural school districts so they would not be impacted by the charter school legislation at the time,” Basye said in a hearing earlier this month.

But local officials in north St. Louis County have wondered why charters have been allowed to expand in their area despite their opposition, while other areas have been shielded.

“We stand on the premise that our children are not an experiment. And we will not allow them to be experimented on,” Brian Jackson, the mayor of the municipality of Beverly Hills, said at a town hall on charter schools late last month.

The Normandy Schools Collaborative is one school district that serves the 24 municipalities in the area. The district has not been fully accredited since 2012, and The Leadership School opening in the fall in Normandy will be the first charter outside of St. Louis and Kansas City.

Kimberly Townsend, the school’s founder and executive director, said that enrollment had been on the decline in the district and that The Leadership School would offer personalized learning models for students.

But the school’s opening has faced fierce opposition from residents and local leaders, who have stressed that the district is improving, including being granted provisional accreditation in 2017.

“We’re not against charter schools, it’s just the way they’re doing it, pushing charter schools down our throat here in Normandy,” said James McGee, the mayor of Vinita Park.

While school choice bills were the first to be heard in both the House and Senate education committees, they have yet to be debated before the full House and Senate.

Bills in both chambers pack a wide variety of issues into a single bill.

“Their thought process was, ‘Go big,’” said Arthur, who voted against the bill passing out of committee.

It remains to be seen what provisions make it across the finish line in what Rep. Paula Brown, D-Hazelwood, called “the spaghetti test” approach.

“Clearly, the supporters of this are trying to move it on a fast track, and probably faster than we’ve seen in other legislative sessions,” Ghan said. “But again, how it’s gonna play out — if these bills will actually reach the House and Senate floor for debate — remains to be seen.”

This article by  Tessa Weinberg is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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