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Judge is asked to toss Ashcroft’s summary of education funding initiative petition

A Cole County judge heard arguments Thursday over whether Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft wrote a misleading ballot summary for an initiative petition seeking to prohibit public tax dollars from going to private schools.

The lawsuit was filed by Sherri Talbott, the treasurer of the political action committee Taxpayers for Accountability and a school board member for the Northwest School District in House Springs.

Talbott’s PAC has only one donor, a political action committee connected to the Missouri National Education Association. A PAC opposing Talbott’s proposed initiative petition and intervening in the lawsuit, called Keep the Promise Missouri, is funded by school choice advocates such as Missouri billionaire Rex Sinquefield. 

The lawsuit argues that Ashcroft’s summary would unduly influence voters and doom the chances of an initiative petition Talbott filed that, if approved by voters, would prohibit the state from authorizing vouchers or tax credits to pay for tuition or other costs of attending private schools.

Last year, lawmakers set up a limited tax credit program that would cover the cost of things including private school tuition. Loretta Haggard, an attorney representing Talbott, said in court Thursday that the initiative petition aims to in effect repeal that law. 

In addition to undoing the current tax credit program, Haggard said Thursday that the initiative petition “would also prohibit any tax credit or voucher programs with broader eligibility standards that could be adopted in the future.”

Beyond the issue of public funds for private schools, the initiative petition would direct the state board of education to accredit charter schools in the same manner as other public schools.

The summary Ashcroft crafted for the petition asks voters if they want to “remove opportunities for disabled, special needs and those students who are economically disadvantaged by eliminating” public funding, like tax credits, from going toward non-public schools. 

It also asks whether voters would like to “limit the influence, power and authority of parents, community members and local school boards” by implementing the uniform evaluation method of the state board.

Jason Lewis with the Attorney General’s office, who was arguing on behalf of Ashcroft, defended the language, stressing that it’s a secretary of state’s job to accurately describe to voters what effects a petition may have.

“The secretary did exactly what he has to do,” Lewis said. “The mandate is to explain to voters what the probable effects and consequences are.”

But Haggard argued Ashcroft’s description is “insufficient and unfair” and fails to make clear that the petition aims to preserve public funding. Haggard urged Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem to strike Ashcroft’s summary and instead replace it with language she proposed that she argues more accurately conveys the initiative’s purpose.

By highlighting students who are disabled, special needs and economically disadvantaged, Ashcroft’s summary language could be interpreted to mean those students have no opportunities to receive public funds to attend private schools, Haggard said. 

The singling out of those students was “plainly calculated to prejudice voters against the measure,” she said, and could make voters think the initiative is singling out vulnerable students for adverse treatment.

The current tax credit program lawmakers passed prioritizes special needs students who have an individualized education plan, as well as students whose families’ incomes don’t exceed two times the standard to qualify for free or reduced price lunch — a little over $98,000 a year for a family of four.

Haggard argued that “most would not consider that to be economically disadvantaged,” and said that the initiative petition also aims to prohibit any broader tax credit or voucher programs in the future, “that would be available to non-disabled, wealthy families in Chesterfield or Clayton,” for example.

Bills have already been filed that aim to expand the tax credit program’s reach before it’s gotten off the ground, including allowing students in counties with at least 100,000 residents to be eligible to participate. Another proposal would entirely strike the geographic boundaries that kept the program out of rural areas.

Chuck Hatfield, an attorney representing Keep the Promise Missouri, made minor suggestions to tweak Ashcroft’s summary and argued Thursday that overall the summary is “fair and sufficient.” Keep the Promise Missouri lists Becki Uccello as its treasurer. Uccello has a daughter who was born with spina bifida and would qualify for the ESA program lawmakers passed.

Hatfield argued the “dramatic change” Talbott’s initiative petition would enact isn’t “preserving public education funding” but rather to eliminate the new tax credit program lawmakers passed and expand the Missouri State Board of Education’s authority over charter schools.

“That’s what the secretary has put them on notice about,” Hatfield said of voters, “and that’s what they’re supposed to do.”

Beetem questioned what discretion parents and school boards would lose over evaluation and accreditation if the language directing the State Board of Education to implement a uniform method is codified in the Missouri Constitution.

Lewis argued that ultimately parents and community members would have less influence over the decisions of their schools, and that school boards would have less authority if the state board’s oversight is expanded.

Haggard said that a system for evaluating public schools is already in place under state statute and regulations, and involves “heavy” state board supervision. The petition would simply move that to the Constitution and ensure a uniform method is used that would also apply to charter schools, she argued.

“Why would parents at charter schools not want to know whether their school is accredited or not?” Haggard said.

Beetem took no action at Thursday’s hearing.

Financial backing

The initiative petition faces an impending deadline. In order to appear before voters, it would need to gather at least 171,592 signatures by early May, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. Tens of thousands of dollars already donated to entities both in opposition and support of the petition suggest it will be a hotly contested proposal.

Taxpayers for Accountability, a political action committee formed in August, received $9,000 in total from the political action committee Unite, Inspire, Lead, according to the committee’s January quarterly report filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission.

Unite, Inspire, Lead is listed at the same address of the Missouri National Education Association’s Jefferson City office and lists the organization’s executive director, DeeAnn Aull, as its treasurer. The committee’s name is also the slogan listed on the Missouri National Education Association website. After donating to Taxpayers for Accountability, the Unite, Inspire, Lead PAC had a little over $205,000 on hand, according to its January quarterly report.

Talbott’s attorneys from the St. Louis firm Schuchat, Cook & Werner, specialize in representing labor unions and employees and have also previously represented the Missouri National Education Association in lawsuits, according to Missouri court records.

Meanwhile, Keep The Promise Missouri was formed in November and received a $15,000 donation from the Washington, D.C.-based school choice advocacy group American Federation for Children Inc. 

It also received a $25,000 donation from Missouri billionaire Rex Sinquefield, a prolific political donor and education reform advocate who has previously promoted measures such as vouchers, charter schools and eliminating teacher tenure.

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

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