Lori VanLeer (use)

An education bill brought to Sen. Dave Schatz’s desk Thursday, Feb. 11, has Washington and Pacific school superintendents worried, the Archdiocese of St. Louis communications officer in support, and Schatz, R-Sullivan, preparing for a debate.

Senate Bill 55, filed by Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, is multifold. The Franklin County superintendents discussed two components the most: How the bill changes the distribution of state funds to schools and how it could allow charter schools to be built locally.

The bill is designed to reduce the one-size-fits-all approach to education, which was made apparent during COVID-19, said Fred Barnes, O’Laughlin’s chief of staff.

While local public school administrators agree that there needs to be more support for flexibility in learning, they said this bill is not the way to do it.

“It’s pretty awful,” said Dr. Lori VanLeer, Washington School District superintendent.

Public or Private

If the bill passes as is, it would allow parents to use tax-credit vouchers to help pay for their child’s tuition at a private school.

“For Borgia, this would support school choice, which is what we support: school choice,” said Peter Frangie, executive director of strategic communications and planning for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. “So the idea of scholarship accounts, I think it better enables parents to have a wider range of options for their children when they’re considering those options.” 

But VanLeer and Dr. John Mulford, Meramec Valley R-III School District superintendent, said this would actually divert state funds away from public schools and those who need it most, rather than encourage a fulfilling education.

In many states that have implemented similar policies, Mulford said the largest percentage of people who use the policies are from affluent communities.

“Therefore, the legislation actually broadens the gap that already exists instead of closing it,” he said.

He said it’s “hard to pinpoint the dollar amount” the district could lose from this bill, but it could be “anywhere from $100,000 to a couple million dollars.”

Parents of privately educated students support the public school districts by paying taxes in their communities, so this would be warranted, Frangie said.

But Mulford said private schools are not held to the same standards of accountability as public schools, such as educating everyone or taking mandated tests.

“So the issue then becomes, is it right to divert public monies to schools who don’t have to play by the same rules?” he said.

Barnes said he did not want to talk much about this section of the bill because the tax credit policies could change on the floor. He did say there would be a cap on the number of people able to use the voucher system in education, so administrators should not be too worried.

‘Unchartered’ Territory

The bill would allow charter schools in Washington and MVR-III school districts’ vicinities. Currently, they are only allowed in St. Louis and Kansas City school districts.

VanLeer and Mulford said this spreads already sparse state funds thinner by allowing in more schools without increasing the flow of money toward them.

“This bill is aiming to improve a system that really needs resources and ingenuity and innovation in order to help current school communities,” VanLeer said. “Adding something to the plate without having a funding mechanism is only going to deplete the resources.”

Nearly 30 percent of Missouri’s 76 charter schools are identified under federal law as needing comprehensive improvement, according to a document by the Missouri School Boards’ Association. Nearly 20 percent are in the bottom 5 percent of Tier 1 buildings in the state, or have less than a 67 percent graduation rate.

However, charter school policies would not affect the local area much, Schatz said.

“Where they have been necessary is in places that have failed school districts, difficult areas, and that’s not the case in Franklin County,” Schatz said. “So I don’t see the concern that charter schools are going to come in.”

Instead, this piece of the bill would help broaden access to education in places that need it, Barnes said.

“We have a lot of parents who come to us and say (they) have a child with (wide-ranging) needs, and the school district isn’t equipped to necessarily handle this specific need, and there is not an option in play if that family doesn’t have the means to pay for it,” he said. “The goal is to try to alleviate some of that.”

Home Schooling’s on the Senate Floor

“I have issues when it comes to potentially how home-schooled students are allowed to participate in athletics,” Schatz said.

From this section of the bill, home-schooled students would be welcome to partake in after-school activities.

They already participate at MVR-III, Mulford said. The difference is the bill would remove the levels of accountability, such as having to pass 80 percent of courses for athletic participation, that non-home-schooled students would still have to follow, he said.

They also could use the school’s resources without participating in the curriculum, VanLeer said.

Schatz did not say if he was for or against the bill. He was interviewed the first day he had seen it, and said he needed more time with the bill before he could offer a conclusion.