Reimagining Education

ESAs moving in state Senate

The Missouri legislature started to consider school choice bills this week.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee heard the first bill on Tuesday.

The committee heard testimony for Sen. Andrew Koenig’s SB 160 which would create the state’s first Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) and provide scholarships to thousands of families across the state seeking an education format that better suits their children.

Parents, school leaders, experts testify in favor of bill

Rebecca Uccello, a public school teacher, told the committee why she chooses to send her daughter, Isabella, to a private school.

She explained that her daughter’s public school did not make accommodations for her special needs.

The school refused to hold their daughter back, despite the Uccello’s requests. Isabella, a very social child, was forced to sit on the sideline in her wheelchair during recess because the school did not make the playground properly accessible.

The Uccellos, who are not Catholic, decided to send Isabella to a Catholic school the next year.

“The class size was smaller and they were much more compassionate about educating our daughter,” said Uccello. “It is completely inclusive. That is something public school wants to say we are but it is not always the case.”

In addition to teaching full-time, Uccello works three part-time jobs to be able to afford the tuition for their daughter.

“It is important to me and to my husband that we have a choice on how our children should be educated best,” she said. “It is totally worth it because she has made gains that she would not have made in the public schools.”

Summit Christian Academy Academic Dean Kimberlee Gill told the committee that an ESA would improve outcomes in reading, writing, and arithmetic for students throughout the state.

“In the 21st Century, we cannot be locked into a system that is yielding 40% of students not being able to comprehend reading, 53% behind in science, and 60% unable to do math,” she said, noting that it was time to look past an outdated system to a system that will provide the agility needed to succeed in the 21st century.

Gill also pointed out that changing a century-old system would not be easy.

“Senators, we all acknowledge that this legislation is about power,” she said. “As such, it is fraught with fear: fear of job loss; fear of public acknowledgement that the current system is lacking; fear of losing the educational melting pot; and for some, fear of both an impoverished and middle classes rising on the wings of education to assert opinion. Please, look past your fears to twenty years of data. Public schools aren’t closing in Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona. That data shows that the competition of other school options is forcing them to get better.

“If you at all acknowledge that you are responsible for providing the best education possible, you must open the doors for your legislative children,” she added. “You must refuse to allow another year go by where a child is trapped in a failing school. You must say, ‘My daughter can’t multiply. I want her out of that building, and this legislative mom/daddy is going to make that possible.’ I know this will be hard in our rural state that loves its Friday night football. That’s ok. Do. hard. Things. When the smoke clears, we’ll be playing football with kids that have a much brighter future in front of them.”

Dr. Rebecka Spencer, administrator of the Cornerstone Academy of the Ozarks, said ESAs were not about draining money from public schools.

“It is about empowering individual parents,” she said. “When we have competition kids win.”

Courtnie Scott-Cammarata testified about the difficult decisions her family had to make this year.

Her recently adopted daughter qualifies for an IEP but did not receive services from her school last year.

“The school regularly created safety risks for our child,” said Scott-Cammarata.

They found a therapeutic school that would have been great for her adopted daughter.

“My husband and I sat down and looked at the cost of tuition after a scholarship was applied,” said Scott-Cammarata. “We concluded that if we took our youngest out of preschool we could possibly afford the rest of tuition. It really was a choice between one of our children’s education or the other.”

She said that an ESA could have helped her family avoid such a difficult choice. Scott-Cammarata pointed out that ESAs could help thousands of students across the state.

Rachelle Engen, a spokesperson for the Institute for Justice, testified that research has shown that private school choice programs benefit everyone.

“Competition works and encourages traditional public schools to improve,” she said.

Establishment lobbyists testify against bill

A number of lobbyists for teacher’s unions and administration or school board associations warned that ESAs were bad for Missouri.

Their main complaint was that such a program would syphon off funding for traditional district schools.

According to legislative Oversight Division, the proposal would actually save the state $22 million and local districts $97 million.

Opponents also argued that the bill did not require appropriate accountability for private schools.

Empowerment Scholarship Accounts would put education funding directly in the hands of parents. As a result, parents would have the freedom to immediately move their child to a better school if they were not happy with the performance of the school they were currently in.

Under questioning from Sen. Bob Onder, several of the lobbyists admitted that the existing system does not give parents that same level of accountability.

“If you are concerned about accountability, a monopoly is not accountable,” said Sen. Onder.

Scott Kimble, a lobbyist for the School Administrator’s Coalition, said that school boards would hold schools accountable.

Sen. Onder said many school boards were run by union interests and could not provide true accountability.

Mike Wood, a lobbyist for the Missouri Teachers Association, admitted that not every child in the state is getting a quality education under the current system and that many parents have no recourse.

“It starts with the teacher,” he said. “They need to have that conversation with the teacher, and they are not happy with what they get with the teacher they need to work their way up… and ultimately they could decide to pull their child out and home school their child or pull their child out and go to another institution.”

But when pressed by Sen. Onder on what parents who could not afford those options should to do to help their child get a good education Wood had no satisfactory answer.

“The only remedy they have is to become the biggest advocate for their child that they can in that classroom,” he said, adding that they would not have any way to escape the monopoly of the school system.

More bills to be heard in the coming weeks

If you would like to take Wood’s advice and become your child’s biggest advocate you will have several chances to make your voice heard in Jefferson City in the coming weeks.

The House Education Committee is expected to hear legislation on creating ESAs and expanding charter schools in the coming weeks.

If you would like to testify about either of these issues, feel free to reach out Cici Tompkins at cici@ceamteam.org

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