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School choice bills face both success and gridlock

It was a mixed week for education reform in the Missouri legislature, with historic success in one chamber and gridlock in the other.

An education savings accounts program managed to clear a major hurdle, barely passing out of the House after heated debate and a rare speech from the House speaker. But on the other side of the building, a sweeping school-choice package in the Senate was tabled after nearly 12 hours of debate.

It remains to be seen if Senate Bill 55 — the expansive education bill that includes provisions such as tax credits to help fund scholarships for expenses including private school and expanding charter schools to more than 50 districts statewide — will be able to be molded into legislation that can garner the support it needs for initial approval.

For the last decade, legislative leaders have declared school choice reform a priority, but resistance has remained steadfast. Supporters have said this year is different — with the pandemic opening more families’ eyes to other options in the wake of a school year upended by the coronavirus’ spread.

But the debate in the Senate and the House underscore the complicated and dynamic views on school choice measures in the legislature — that don’t fall neatly along party lines or geographic boundaries.

“For either side, mine included, to think that the only acceptable path forward is, ‘Us,’ is, ‘My thing,’ is ‘The status quo,’ is just unimaginable at this point,” Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said during debate last week. “To politicize the future of our kids and the next generation and dwindle it down to the number of votes in a chamber… who are we to play God?”

‘Compromise to be had’

Missouri Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin, R-Shelbina.
Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina

Senate Bill 55, sponsored by Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, was already 49 pages of historically controversial education proposals when it passed out of committee in late January.

But it doubled in size when it was finally brought to the Senate floor last week. Rowden introduced a substitute that ballooned the bill to more than 100 pages, adding measures dealing with school accreditation, adjusting how funds are allocated for charters and requiring a district offer in-person learning for at least four days a week in order to be permitted to offer alternative forms of instruction amid the pandemic.

Rowden said his proposed bill was “a blank slate” and acknowledged that while some lawmakers were torn over school choice measures, he urged for the debate to be a chance to start over.

When asked if the bill was simply too big, Rowden told reporters he anticipates it will be revised.

“I think every bill goes through its various iterations,” Rowden said. “I would expect the final version to look different. I’m not sure if it actually ends up being any bigger or any smaller. But we’ll see.”

Minority Floor Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said he would have started with a bill focused more narrowly on a single topic, and then built around it.

“I personally believe that the bill that was trotted out didn’t have the votes to pass. And I don’t know if you guys can count, there’s only ten of us,” Rizzo said, in reference to the number of Democratic senators. “This isn’t ‘D’ versus ‘R,’ urban versus rural.”

When a new bill substitute was introduced hours later, provisions related to recalling school board members and the Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program had been taken out, while new ones were added in, like tying scholarship accounts to funding school transportation and allowing social studies courses related to Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament.

An amendment by Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, was also narrowly tacked on to the bill that would require schools receive written consent from a student’s parent before teaching course materials “relating to human sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases.” If they fail to, the school could be guilty of a class C misdemeanor and must pay a $10,000 fine toward the state’s fund for crime victims.

The amendment inspired a heated discussion, with Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, saying it would take the state down a “dangerous road.”

With a narrow margin expected, GOP leaders must be careful that adding or removing a provision to win one vote doesn’t end up losing someone else’s in turn.

Rowden said last week that “there’s still some compromise to be had,” but stressed that expanding charter schools and a form of an education savings accounts program are his top priorities.

Missouri Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City.
Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City

Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat who taught middle school at a charter that closed after her second year, cautioned against making “reactionary” changes to a “once in a century pandemic.”

Arthur said she would like to see as much accountability inserted as possible and ensure scholarship accounts are targeted toward students in need, such as those from lower income households or with disabilities.

“Even if there’s an improved version of this bill, it’s still going to be an uphill battle to get the necessary votes, because you have a very fine needle to thread,” Arthur said.

That was clear during last week’s debate, when Republican Sens. Lincoln Hough of Springfield and Eric Burlison from Battlefield expressed their reservations.

On the one hand, Burlison said public schools have lost sight that the product they must deliver on is providing an education. And he expressed frustration at public school proponents’ aversion to the private sector.

“To them, the four letter word is ‘profit,’” Burlison said. “It’s almost like a cuss word to them.”

However, he said if the state were to authorize more school choice options, he would want to see regulatory burdens on schools also relaxed. Ultimately, his constituents are mostly happy with the education options they have, Burlison said.

“My goal is to make sure that we’re not creating unnecessary harm,” Burlison said.

Rowden said the Senate may prioritize other bills in motion. But if Senate Bill 55 is going to move forward, senators will have to agree to reopen the bill for further amendments, Rowden said. Monday is the last day that vote could take place, and it would require the support of 18 senators to succeed.

Down to the votes

It came down to the votes this week in the House, where House Bill 349 eked out of the House with 82 votes, the minimum required for passage.

The bill would establish the “Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program,” which would allow residents to receive a tax credit for donating to certain nonprofits. Those organizations would then provide scholarships to eligible students that could be used toward a variety of costs, like tuition, tutoring, transportation and more. 

Concessions were made to get the bill through the House, like adding a $75 million cap to the program.

One of the major ones was adding a provision that would restrict the program to only municipalities with more than 30,000 residents — which would shield it from entering rural areas.

Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson, addresses the chamber.
Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson

“If it’s not good for your community and your kids, it’s not good for mine,” Rep. Raychel Proudie, a Democrat from Ferguson, said. “So stop using poor kids and black kids to experiment on. We pay taxes, too.”

Rep. Phil Christofanelli, a Republican from St. Peters and the bill’s sponsor, said it was far from what he wanted to do, but that making compromises was the nature of the legislature.

“We give and we take, and we try to come to a final product that at least 82 members can ascribe to,” Christofanelli said, “and I think that’s what we tried to do here.”

At the start of the session, House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, declared education reform one of his top priorities. He made a rare speech Thursday that made that commitment clear.

House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold

“When I was 16, I dropped out. That was 28 years ago. What has changed in education in the state of Missouri in 28 years?” Vescovo said. “…The only thing that’s changed is we’ve gotten more and more special interests in this building that care about their own special interests.”

“Please, remember your special interest is your kids,” Vescovo later said. “That’s who matters.”

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

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