Parents, educators, and current and former Missouri officials joined members of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee this week in recognizing that Missouri’s educational system fails to meet the needs of every student and calling for new programs that would give families more educational options.
State Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick told the committee that while he had always been a supporter of public education he recognized that Missouri families needed more educational options.
“Not every school is meant for every kid,” he said noting that he has two special needs children that are close to school age. “I’m going through a situation where we’re having to try to figure out what the best decision for our kids is going to be. The approach I’ve taken is that I don’t really care what I have to spend I’m going to make sure that I provide the absolute best that I can provide for them. But there’s a lot of people in this state that are not able to make that same decision.”
Becki Uccello, who also testified before the Senate Education Committee last week, told house members how finding a private school for her daughter Izzi had ensured Izzi was getting a quality education.
Becki pointed out that she is a public school teacher and her son attends a public school but explained that their district school’s inability to provide for Izzi’s needs meant that they had to find another option, even though it means Becki has to work two additional jobs to pay for it.
“This is about the kids and not the money. We can talk all day long about academics and academic help, but if my child is not feeling valued at school and she is being pulled 70% of the time from her peers that is a problem,” Beckie said, noting that they had purchased their house in the district specifically in the hope of sending their children to a good school. “We were promised things would change and they did not. We gave them four years and they never made any modifications.
“I’m not against public schools, I just believe that not everybody fits into a public school,” she added. “There are solutions that work I think it is in everyone’s best interest to see what the choices are. This is the third year we have been up here and we really want to see some movement on this. Think of the kids and how they can benefit from choice.”
Marcus Richardson, a pastor and parent from the Columbia area, told the committee that his daughter was thriving in a private school but pointed out there was no way they could afford that opportunity without financial aid from the school.
“I’m just a regular parent who has a child who attends a private school,” he said. “We have been incredibly pleased with the education that she is receiving. The fact that the teachers know my child and they can have that one-on-one engagement is a plus. I believe that my daughter would have fallen behind during this pandemic academically if it were not for her being at Christian Fellowship. I believe that more can be done to educate more minority families about the benefits of private school. I believe that we should have the option of where our children get their education. If public schools work then you should go to public schools, but if private schools work then you should be able to go to private schools. We all should have a choice.”
Scott Williams, a school board member at the school Richardson sends his daughter to, said his school provides over $350,000 in financial aid to families in need but still has an extensive waiting list of families they cannot help.
“We have more families coming to us, particularly minority families, who wish their children could be in a more structured setting,” he said. “We have limited resources as to what we can provide to them and so these bills that are before you would expand those opportunities particularly for minority families, refugee families, people of color, and so forth.”
Williams pointed out that in addition to the financial aid his school provides, private schools as a whole actually save districts money.
“In Columbia, whether they have one student or 19,000 students two-thirds of their budget is by local taxes,” he explained. “They’re receiving that whether a student is there or not, so actually fewer students in their system would mean more money per student for their system.”
Sarah Slay Norden, a Columbia parent, told the committee that she has had to spend thousands of dollars this year to ensure that her children get a quality education in a “learning pod” because the public school system was not providing quality in-person education.
“There’s never been a greater time than now to address the need for education reform in Missouri,” she said. “In Columbia, a city built on education our three middle school children have not seen the inside of their public school in over 300 days. The pandemic has exposed the cracks and flaws and opened a window to all of the inadequacies of our current public school system and the catastrophic failure of those in decision making roles.”
“I support and believe that we should have the ability to choose from a variety of alternatives that best suit the educational needs of our children,” she added. “Therefore, our tax dollars should follow the child and not automatically be assigned to our public school district. An education tax dollar savings account during this time would have given us the ability to enroll our children in any of the private or other surrounding public schools that chose to put children first during the pandemic. Those schools were committed to developing a solution and putting in place a plan for instruction, unlike Columbia Public Schools.”
Angie Knight, a speech therapist and educator, told the committee that the public school system is failing children with special needs and that seeing that failure is what led her to create her own school.
“Every single week we get inundated with referrals,” she said holding up a binder of applications to her school from parents who want to place their children in an inclusive environment but cannot afford tuition. “These stories break my heart. I have been in the public school system. I have sat on IEP after IEP and I have watched the system fail child, after child, after child.”
She said the public school system has so much red tape for helping special needs children that it makes it nearly impossible for therapists and teachers to give the children what they really need.
Knight said she has had students transfer into her school as ninth-graders who are only reading on a third-grade level.
“We cannot wait to fix a system that is broken,” she said. “We cannot wait. We have to do something. Missouri can do better. These are our children. We need to do better.”
Former Rep Kevin Corlew told the committee that expanding educational options to include private religious schools was also a matter of protecting religious freedom.
“If you believe in religious liberty, freedom of thought, and equal educational opportunity then you should support school choice,” he said. “I’m not here to attack public schools or public school teachers or administrators. My wife and I are both products of public schools, our kids have attended public schools in several years past and I once served at our local public school board the North Kansas City School District. But these government schools with a one-size-fits-all approach to K-12 education should not have a monopoly over education funding.”
“Like many families in Missouri, ours is a religious family. We desire to raise our kids and educate them according to Christian values,” he added. “It’s hard for religious parents to overcome the opposing and oppressive beliefs taught day after eight-hour day in the classroom. Thus within the past year, we’ve pulled all three of our kids from public school.”
He said when families chose to send their children to private schools they ended up being blocked from hundreds of thousands of dollars in state aid that is automatically given to families with students in public schools.
“Let’s say that someone like me has three children and the average per-student funding or expenditure for K-12 education is $10,000 per year,” he explained. “$10,000 times three children equals $30,0000 per year, now multiply that by 13 years and you get $390,000. That is the public benefit available for families educating their kids in the public schools but it’s also the penalty imposed on someone like me. If I send them to private religious schools I lose every penny yet I still pay a lifetime of taxes to pay for public schools. Selective funding of education guarantees religious inequality.”
Dr. Kimberlee Gill, a school leader at Summit Christian Academy, told the House committee, and later the Senate Education Committee, that there was a shift in education happening right now, and Missouri needed to champion ideas like school choice if it wanted to ensure a positive future.
“Students are now asking why do I have to sit in school seven hours a day five days a week,” she said. “They’re asking why they have to accept the course offered by only one school when any class in the world is now accessible. They want to differentiate. They want to do what the best homeschool families have been doing for years — education a la carte, accessing the best teachers, the best classes for the gifts and talents within them.”
“School choice is already here for people who can afford it and for people who are willing to think outside the box,” she added. “Missouri has a chance to make the best education accessible. House Bill 349 I believe is a great way to make that happen.
“We are not being the most innovative state,” she explained. “I have had parents come to my school from Florida move to Missouri and look at me and say okay how do we access the state money. When they realized Missouri had nothing they moved back to Florida. Missouri has an opportunity to be the kind of state people move to if we can get outside the thinking that a commitment to the public education is not a commitment to a system but a commitment to the public’s education.”