Reimagining Education

School choice bills moving in statehouse

School choice initiatives are making progress in both houses of the Missouri legislature.

Last week, the Senate Ways and Means Committee approved SB160. This bill will create Missouri’s first ever Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA). It is expected to be heard on the Senate floor next week.

On Tuesday, the House Education Committee approved HB581. This bill expands where charter schools can operate and improves charter school accountability. On Thursday, the House Rules Committee approved the bill and sent it to be considered on the floor.

Similar bills for both initiatives, charter expansion and ESA’s, were also heard in committees in both the House and Senate on Tuesday with many advocates coming out to support both initiatives.

House Education Committee holds hearing on ESAs

The House Education Committee heard testimony on HB478 Tuesday. Sponsor Rep. Phil Christofanelli said the bill would create an Empowerment Scholarship Account and provide scholarships for students seeking better education options.

“They could do whatever it takes to get the education that serves their needs,” he told the committee.

Adam Pesheck, a spokesman for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, told the committee that similar programs had been very effective in other states. 

He explained that the scholarships would be funded by individuals or businesses making a donation to a scholarship granting organization. In return, the donor would get a tax credit, up to half of their tax liability.

Pesheck also highlighted how similar programs had created significant savings in other states.

Dr. James Shuls, expanded on that information, pointing out that the fiscal note for the legislation did not correctly predict the savings the state could realize through an ESA program.

“These programs almost always generate cost savings for the state,” he said.

Shuls also provided a personal story of how his family had exercised school choice to improve their children’s education. He said they live in one of the best school districts in the state, but discovered that the local school was not meeting the specific needs of some of their children.

“That is what this program does,” he said, “it allows parents to get the type of education that fits them, aligns with their values and what they view as quality. I view the school I now have three of my kids in as a wonderful thing. I still have one daughter going to a public school, not because I love her less, but because it fits her.”

Rebecca Uccello, a parent who teaches at a public school and works two extra jobs to be able to send her daughter, Isabella, to a private school had a similar story.

Uccello said that her local district school was not meeting the special needs of her daughter, both in terms of providing the academic support she needed and in terms of creating an inclusive environment her daughter could be comfortable in from her wheelchair.

“The day after we enrolled Izzy (in the private school) they built a ramp to the playground, they have built a ramp in the basilica so she can participate in mass,” said Uccello. “They have round tables so she can sit anywhere she wants to in the cafeteria. She has compassionate teachers. She has friends and family. Even though we are not a Catholic family they have embraced us. Her teacher modifies work for her. She does not have an IEP. She is not pulled out for anything. They are 100 percent inclusive.”

Uccello said that public school was the best fit for her son, while the private school was the best fit for her daughter.

Unfortunately, about 10 other advocates for creating Missouri’s first ever ESA program did not have a chance to speak at the hearing because of time constraints, but those advocates spent the morning exploring the capitol and talking with their elected leaders about the important issue.

Senate General Laws Committee hears charter school bill

 Sen. Bill Eigel presented SB292 to the Senate General Laws Committee Tuesday. This bill will expand charter schools to more areas of the state and provide better accountability measures for charter schools.

A number of parents, teachers and community leaders spoke in favor of the bill.

Lisa Smith, a parent in Riverview Gardens, told the committee that expanding charter schools was key to helping her son have a better future.

“Generations of families are being failed by underperforming schools,” she said. “Parents should not be forced to send their children to one single school. School choice is paramount in North St. Louis County. Parents want charter schools expanded to North St. Louis County. We are the taxpayers. We are tired of paying taxes for our children to not receive a quality education.

“Our children are not zip codes or dollar signs,” she added. “They are the future. Give the students of North St. Louis County access to a quality education by expanding charter schools.”

Carmen Ward, a parent who lives just miles away from Smith, described how having access to a charter school had transformed her son’s life.

“Charter schools for me are a beacon of hope in a very, very dark place,” she said. “Let the beacon of hope help us. Let it at least go to a vote and let the people decide. You have all the power to make all the choices for me.”

Marcus Robinson, a spokesman for The Opportunity Trust, explained how a charter school he had created in Indianapolis had transformed that community.

“Fifteen years after we launched that school there is new housing in that community,” he said. “The district is now the leading sponsor of innovation because we had done that work. What we brought to the table was an example of what greatness can look like.”

Robinson said the proposed bill would not only expand charters but provide effective accountability to make sure that good charter schools succeed and poorly performing charters are closed.

“This is the kind of legislation we need to make Missouri better,” he said.

Kim Townsend, a parent and teacher who lives in the Hazelwood School District, said expanding charter schools would give families much-needed educational options.

“For families who live in St. Louis County the only option they have is their assigned school,” she said. “Parents are either forced to put their child in a school and hope it is a good experience or they have to move to a different community that offers greater innovation and choice and opportunities. Parents are homeschooling and/or sacrificing to send their children to parochial or private schools.

“For families with financial means and opportunities to move or homeschool or pay for private school that works out fine,” she said. “For families that do not have those options they are stuck with only the school they are assigned to.”

Doug Thaman, of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, pointed out that expanding charter schools was key to improving Missouri’s economic future.

“We have over 400,000 students who have tested as not being proficient in either reading, English or math,” he said. “That is an economic crisis.”

Thaman added that the majority of families support school choice initiatives and said the accountability measures in the bill would create a more stringent system than that currently used for traditional district schools.

“These (charter schools) will be the only public schools in Missouri that are automatically closed if they are not meeting the needs of kids,” he said.

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