A diverse group of parents and grandparents converged on Jefferson City with a unified message for Missouri legislators: Families need more educational options.
Those testifying before the Senate Education Committee in favor of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) and charter school expansion on Tuesday represented a wide cross-section of Missouri coming from rural, suburban, and urban communities.
Some shared the issues they have had during the pandemic with their district schools while others talked about their successes in public charter and private schools. Legislators heard from families struggling to make ends meet and from families who have been able to exercise choice by moving to better school districts.
Each story added proof to a stark reality: Missouri’s education system is not working and it is time for lawmakers to step up and help families fighting for their children’s future.
Johnnie Calloway, a single father from Kansas City, told legislators about the extraordinary lengths he had gone through to make sure his children had better educational options than he had had himself.
“As a young man who grew up in the City Union Mission which is a homeless shelter, who watched a man be gunned down on my front porch when I was 16 years old and graduated high school with no lights, no running water, and no gas in the house I understand the importance of education and it is the key to getting where you want to go in life,” he said, explaining how he had found a job as a technology support specialist at a private school so that he could get a break on the tuition for his daughter to attend the school. “She’s been able to flourish in ways I could never have met.”
When he got full custody of his son, he placed him in a charter school that provided an equally positive learning environment.
“Then COVID-19 happened,” Calloway told the committee. “Due to the school switching to virtual, I was not able to give the proper parental support to my son that he needed while also working so I began looking into schools in my area that could accommodate both my children. I then found Crossroads Academy. They were highly rated and had space available for both children. It also continued the trend of a positive environment for my children. Thanks to this, my children both speak three languages and don’t know who Cardi B or Megen Thee Stallion is. My story is very much the exception in inner-city Kansas City. Most parents in my community don’t have options and are forced to keep their kids in failing schools, continuing the cycle of poverty and under-education that runs rampant in my community. “
Stephanie Bell told the committee how lucky her family had been to be able to exercise school choice by mortgage and escape the Jefferson City school system by moving.
“I learned that the school district that we were in was in the bottom 10 percent according to APR statewide and that less than 30 percent of the kids at the elementary school were proficient in language arts,” she said. “That caused me much distress and I felt like I didn’t have any choices. With three kids, private school is upwards of $300,000 and my family didn’t feel like they could commit to that at the time.”
After trying to find a solution at the district school, and failing, her family made the difficult decision to move to Ashland to ensure a better future for her children.
“I love public schools,” she said. “I was a public school kid. My kids are now in a public school it’s been a great experience but I hate that I felt like I didn’t have any choices but to move. Worse than that I hate that there are other parents who are in my position who are unsatisfied and feel like they’re not getting a quality education and don’t have the option to just pick up and move.
“I encourage you to give parents in Missouri the same choices that parents in other states have,” she told the committee.
Mary Hill, a grandparent from Liberty, painted a bleak picture of the struggles district school children were facing during the pandemic. Her story highlighted just how false the concept of local control is when district officials and school board members refuse to listen to parents.
“One of them [her grandchildren] has an IEP and the other has 504 and they’re not being accommodated and I’m desperate,” she said, explaining that the pandemic had forced her grandchildren’s school to cut back to only two days of in-person instruction and nothing she did as a concerned family member could convince the school system to improve the situation. “They’re in special education and they’re educating themselves. I’ve tried communicating with school board members and things like that and it’s just a brick wall. If the school isn’t going to think outside the box somebody has to and that’s why I support these bills.”
Doretha Washington, a St. Louis mother of five, said she had had a completely different experience during the pandemic at the charter school her children attend.
“I am a parent of children with dyslexia and they give them one-on-one time to help them with things they are struggling with,” she told the committee. “They also give me extra pointers to help my children with dyslexia. During this pandemic, they have reached out to us numerous times to give us support with whatever we needed. One of the supports during the pandemic was to let students take home their instruments and my son was able to bring home his Ukulele.”
She said she really appreciated the way the school focused on student growth and accepted students with all GPAs, unlike the district magnet schools. Washington told the committee she thought it was unfair her children had access to such a good school when families living just miles away in St. Louis County did not.
“Children in the county should be able to go to any school of their choice no matter where they live or open charter schools in the county,” she said. “Charter schools are thriving more than SLPS.”
Dr. Kimberlee Gill explained how her private school, Summitt Christian Academy, had transformed during the pandemic to provide the education her students demanded, offering a comprehensive online program while also providing continual in-person learning. She said those efforts had resulted in a dramatic increase in enrollment.
“We do whatever it takes to fulfill our mission to inspire students to achieve their god-given potential through excellent academics and Christian training in a compassionate environment,” she said, adding that those efforts had resulted in a dramatic increase in enrollment. “We started mid-august with 796 students enrolled. By September 14th we had 844 students. By December 7th we had 887 and the children keep coming. We are still admitting and are currently at 895 students.”
She said that despite offering over half a million dollars in scholarships, her school gets calls on an almost daily basis from parents trying to figure out how to get their children out of district schools and into the innovative program offered at Summit Christian Academy.
“We still have multiple children who cannot access outside scholarships that we have found for them,” she said. “They are desperate but we cannot take them all. It will be a matter of years to recover from where those children would be now if their parents had the choice of how to educate them through the pandemic. If only the [ESA] legislation had passed last year. I hope this year my Missouri government will finally provide justice to its children and be prompt in doing what is right.”
Danielle Wasson Courtney, a parent of a special needs student in Lee’s Summit district schools explained to the committee why parents in that area were so desperate to find better options.
“We are on our third superintendent in four years,” she said. “We are paying out six-figure contracts for superintendents that no longer work for our district. We have a board of education doxing community members for voicing opposition to decisions that are being made. We have high learners in our district that are bailing the second semester of senior year because they are so stressed and so depressed because they haven’t been in a chair since March of last year.
“My journey through the special education process within Lee’s Summit was nothing short of a nightmare,” she said. “For the last 13 years of my life, I have fought tooth and nail every day to give him [her son] services that he needed to get the best possible education that they were willing to give me. Was there a better option out there? Absolutely. Everywhere I looked there was a better option, but I’m an LPN and make $4,000 above the poverty level. I can’t afford private education. This bill not only provides relief for families affected by the pandemic but relief for parents that have been held hostage in school districts that have mismanaged their money and allowed political influence from teacher unions to make their decisions that keep students out of the classroom.”
Lindi Williford, a parent in Wentzville, told the committee that despite paying the highest property tax of any community in St. Charles County her children had the least opportunities to learn during the pandemic.
“We are the only district in the county that hasn’t had consistent face-to-face instruction or reliable virtual learning since March of 2020,” she said “That’s nearly a year. My straight ‘A’ student has so much anxiety from the constant changes and inconsistencies that she often can’t sleep. My middle school-aged daughter, who already struggled in school, has lost all enthusiasm for learning and it seems each day there are tears. I’m tired of wiping tears off my babies’ faces as they struggle to learn in this kind of environment. It’s not working for my family. We need more options.
“We feel trapped and helpless in a district that is not putting the needs of our children first,” Williford added. “Families need other options. I am here to advocate for educational choice and the opportunities we are not getting in the Wentzville School District and around the state of Missouri. These options can bring change and relief for all our kids. Our children simply cannot go another year in a broken system that doesn’t put their needs first.”
Sarah Slay-Norden said when her family was faced with similar issues in Columbia they had been lucky enough to form an educational pod but knew that was not an option for many families because of the cost.
“The pandemic has exposed the cracks and flaws and opened a window to all the inadequacies of our current public school system, and the catastrophic failure of those in decision making roles,” she said. ” 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, therefore, our tax dollars should follow the child and not automatically be given to our assigned public school district. An education tax dollar savings account 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 in-seat instruction unlike CPS.”
She said the learning pod had cost over $12,000 since September.
“We understand that we are fortunate that we have had the ability to find and hire a teacher,” she said. “So many families in our community have had to make difficult decisions to quit their jobs or have been forced to leave their children home alone to navigate online learning. My hope is that no one in our community will have to face making these difficult decisions again when the system is reformed and children are put first.”
Avia Ramsey said she had had to make some difficult decisions for her daughter’s future but thanks to the availability of charter schools in Kansas City had found a path that worked.
“During her first year in elementary school, Autumn’s teacher informed me that she was falling behind. The school suggested that she be held back a year because they couldn’t get her back on grade level in time,” said Ramsey. “I decided to explore other options as well as see what I could do to help her prosper. I then found a wonderful charter school, Citizens of the World. They took an in-depth look at her academic background and we came up with a plan to help her reach her full potential. With the help of her new school and me working with her, I’m proud to say that my baby is not only caught up but is thriving tremendously.
“Most kids in my community are not so lucky,” she added. “The lack of quality education has been a systematic problem. Children should not be imprisoned by their zip codes. The only way to guarantee an exceptional education to all students is to support school choice.”
Becki Uccello, a public school teacher who lives in Springfield, said she works three jobs to be able to afford to send her daughter Izzi to a private school.
“At our first parent-teacher conference when she was in kindergarten the first things out of her teacher’s mouth was that Izzy was an academic failure,” Uccello said, adding that the public school her daughter started at also failed to provide basic accommodations like equal access to recess activities and a seat she was comfortable in at the lunch table. “We enrolled her in private school and it was the best decision that we made. Izzy is now in fourth-grade and she continues to thrive in her class. She is with her classmates 100 of the day. The tables in the dining room are round so she can sit wherever she wants. The playground area is accessible she plays with her peers.
“I am not anti-public school,” added Uccello. “I have been in teaching for 24 years. Our son attends public high school and is a member of its JROTC’s nationally ranked rifle team. That’s an opportunity he would not have in the private school. That being said our local public school system failed our daughter. Fortunately, the private school system includes her and encourages her success.”
James Schuls, a parent and education scholar, agreed that school choice policies were not anti-public schools, but that they actually worked toward the same purpose as traditional public schools.
“That purpose is to educate every student, to give every student the opportunities that we all want them to have,” he said. “It’s not an attack on anything. It’s a blessing to families throughout the state to give them an opportunity to have something else, to have a say in their child’s education.”
If you would like to have more of a say in your child’s education, please fill out the form below to get involved in the school choice movement in Missouri.