Local school officials are pushing back on legislators’ plans to alter public funding and school choice in the state.
Washington School District Board of Education members unanimously approved a student protection resolution, which opposes the implementation of Senate Bill 55 and responds to “the many other pieces of anti-public school legislation that have been filed this year,” as written in the minutes for the Feb. 24 meeting. They sent the document to federal and state senators and representatives to voice the school district’s stance.
“We’re not supposed to be speaking to the crowd, but I’m speaking to the crowd,” board director Scott Byrne said in front of the 40 people attending that night’s meeting. “Politics is ugly, and what’s happening in Jeff City tonight, right now, is disgusting.”
Byrne referred to legislators’ proposal of Senate Bill 55, which he called “an omnibus bill.”
“They were in session until 1:30 in the morning last night, piling junk on top of a bill that was already junk,” he said, “and this is extremely important, not only to this district, but to our surrounding districts.”
Among its many components, the bill would change public school funding by allowing the construction of charter schools within the district’s vicinity. It also would redistribute tax credits to help cover private school education fees.
“All that’s going to do is affect every taxpayer in this district, the money they’re putting toward this district and toward this school,” Byrne said. “It’s all going to get flushed out. We’re going to lose a lot of our programming because of that.”
The bill’s other facets include allowing school board recall elections, which board members said would be costly. It also allows home-schooled children to participate in after-school activities at public schools, though without needing to meet the same requirements as in-house students.
The board members’ student protection resolution made several declarations, mainly announcing that schools receiving funds should be held to the same standards of accountability as one another.
For example, the resolution states that schools receiving tax money should not be able to exclude people from enrolling in their classes due to factors such as socioeconomic class and ability.
It also states that schools should be required to report to the state the same ways, and they should be governed by elected school board officials residing in the areas where taxes are paid.
This resolution arrives while other education-related discussions are being held by state representatives and senators.
The day after the Washington School District’s board meeting, state representatives gave House Bill 349 final-round approval with a tight 82-71 vote.
This bill allows private donors to give money to certain nonprofits, which then would fund scholarships for K-12 students via Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA). The scholarships can cover a range of areas including the cost of private school tuition inside or outside of the state, extracurricular participation and school supplies.
The donator is eligible to receive tax credits equal to the amount they gave.
Local Reps. Aaron Griesheimer, R-Washington; John Simmons, R-Washington; and Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, voted to move the bill forward. Rep. Nate Tate, R-St. Clair, voted against it.
“It was a difficult vote, I will admit,” Griesheimer said. “I didn’t want to see any of my school districts get hurt.”
He said he voted yes after “the bill was watered down quite a bit” during the floor debate. With the amendments, HB 349’s policies only affect individuals living in counties with a charter form of government or in a town or city with at least 30,000 residents, so it does not directly affect Franklin County, he said.
“I understand the fear is that the money that is going to fund these ESAs could have been put into our public schools, but I think the foundation formula, it’s usually always funded — it’s always fully funded,” Griesheimer said. “So, I think we should not see a hit on our public schools.”
The state education funding formula only became fully funded after legislators voted to modify it in the mid-2000s. The General Assembly has also continued to underfund the state’s transportation formula, which reimburses schools for the cost of busing students to and from schools.
Griesheimer said HB 349 would fund up to 40 percent of participating schools’ transportation needs.
Gov. Mike Parson, and his predecessors, have also routinely withheld money promised to K-12 education when the state’s budget falls short. Last year, Parson withheld $131 million from public education. He later released over $100 million of the withheld funds.
Representatives and senators also began the two-day Missouri Legislators Retreat Feb. 25, the day after the school board meeting.
Participants used this time to discuss school accountability standards, school choice, COVID-19’s effects on education and virtual learning practices, according to the agenda.
The retreat, held virtually by The Hunt Institute, was closed to the public with the exception of the welcome remarks.
Regarding SB 55, Griesheimer said he is “not in favor” of the way the charter school expansion component is written.
Byrne told everyone attending the Feb. 24 school board meeting to reach out to their senators.
In calling for the vote that approved the board’s resolution, President John Freitag said, “Let’s hope that common sense comes to Jefferson City.”