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Harmful school choice legislation could be debated in the Senate soon

Three bills that would have a detrimental effect on public education are on the short list of bills that could be brought up for debate in the Senate soon. SB525 (Emery) would create recovery charter schools in Kansas City and allow for open enrollment of non-resident students.  SB649 (Eigel) would allow for charter school expansion while failing to address serious accountability concerns, and SB581 (Cierpiot) would create a new tax credit voucher that could end up costing $50 million each year.

SB525 would allow for the creation of “recovery charter schools” in Kansas City.  These schools would educate students in grades nine through 12 who are in recovery from substance use disorder or dependency.  Schools created under this legislation would be allowed to enroll students from across the state and would require the students resident district to pay 100 percent of its average per-pupil expenditure to the recovery charter school.   

In addition to students enrolled in the school for substance abuse, students recovering from co-occurring disorders such as anxiety, depression, and attention hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may also be enrolled. The bill does not require students seeking to attend the charter school to verify that they are suffering from a substance-use disorder or substance dependency.  Further gaps in accountability fail to require these schools to provide additional counseling or specialized instruction to ensure students receive the needed support to address addiction and other mental health needs.   

Missouri’s public schools provide services to all students. Teachers, administrators and support staff work hard to provide programs that support students struggling with substance-use disorders and substance dependency.   

SB649 is another attempt to expand charter schools in Missouri, and the legislation this year again fails to address public accountability and local control of public education. This massive expansion of state government would allow charter schools to operate in any school district located in a county with a charter form of government (Jackson, St. Louis County, St. Charles County, and Jefferson) and any city with a population greater than 30,000 with only one school district without oversight by the locally elected school board.

Public schools across the state are working to find greater efficiencies, but the track record of Missouri charter schools shows how expanded government programs without proper oversight can harm students across the state and further stretch limited resources.  Between 1999 and the 2017-2018 school year, 65 charter schools were established in Missouri.  Twenty-five of those charter schools have closed due to academic performance or financial issues.  Over $785 million taxpayer dollars have gone to Missouri charter schools that closed their doors.  While the State Board of Education and public education advocates look for solutions to address the current teacher recruitment and retention problems, this legislation is a costly expansion of a system that further strains taxpayer’s ability to maintain quality schools without the oversight of publicly elected and accountable school boards.   

Missouri has excellent schools and support for public education, locally elected school boards provide accountability to students, parents and taxpayers.  Charter school board members are not required to live in the areas where charter schools operate and are not even required to be residents of Missouri.  Charter schools are not governed by elected leaders, their boards are allowed to oversee and handle millions of taxpayer dollars. This legislation expands a current system that is not aligned with the local control of public education that allows all stakeholders to have a voice.

SB581 (Cierpiot) would allow any taxpayer who makes a qualifying contribution to the Show Me a Brighter Future Scholarship to claim a tax credit equal to 100 percent of the total contribution.  The tax credit program would begin at $25 million and could grow up to a capped amount of $50 million per year.   

The State Treasurer must adopt rules and procedures necessary to implement the program, including rules setting forth the procedure for awarding scholarship grants in the order of preference set forth in the act, reporting requirements, responsibilities of a parent of an eligible student, and responsibilities of an eligible student’s district of residence.

Under the bill, an eligible student is any student who is a member of a household whose total annual income does not exceed an amount equal to two times the income standard used to qualify for free and reduced price lunch, who has attended a public school in the preceding semester or is starting school in the state for the first time, received a scholarship grant from the program in the preceding year, or who is starting school in Missouri for the first time and is a sibling of a student already enrolled in the program.

While the bill attempts to limit the scope of the scholarship, a family of four making almost $100,000 would qualify for the voucher program. The median household income for the state is $53,560. Missouri has fallen so far behind neighboring states and national trends regarding teacher salaries, that most education professionals’ families would qualify for this wide-open program.   

The scholarship dollar amount awarded to an eligible student would not exceed the state adequacy target, or the actual tuition at a qualifying school.  The amount of a scholarship grant awarded to a special education student could not exceed an amount equal to the state adequacy target multiplied by 1.75, or the actual tuition of the school.  The current state adequacy target is $6,365.

Similar to the unregulated voucher proposals in the past, this bill fails to ensure that students are receiving a quality education and that they have protections in place to be allowed to attend schools that don’t discriminate.  The schools accepting vouchers must administer tests, but the results of those tests have no bearing on the institutions participation in the program.   

Six years after the program has gone into effect, the State Treasurer must issue a report on the state of the program, which shall include information regarding the finances of a qualified school, the educational outcomes of eligible students, and the results of annual parental satisfaction surveys.

Missouri can’t afford to pull further resources away from public education, especially at a time when the state is working to ensure that Missouri has the workforce necessary to continue to grow the state’s economy.  Investments in students’ needs including mental health access, classroom supports, and highly qualified teachers must be a priority for the legislature before creating programs that would defer money away from public education.

MSTA opposes these measures based on MSTA Adopted Resolutions.  Education professionals believe that all students deserve equal access to a free public education.  We believe that the continuation of our free nation and its strength and well-being depend on our free public schools.   

PSRS Board meets to discuss investments

The Board of Trustees of the Public School and Education Employee Retirement Systems of Missouri met on Feb. 10 to receive an update on investments, pending legislation in the General Assembly and possible changes to PSRS/PEERS disability programs.

PSRS/PEERS staff also briefed the board on the pending retirement legislation as well as an update on possible state budget projections.  The system is currently tracking over 200 bills that touch on education or retirement issues.  PSRS/PEERS is working with DESE and other education advocates, including MSTA to continue to look at ways to address the substitute teacher shortage in Missouri while still maintaining the financial integrity of the retirement system. There is still concern regarding the state budget from legislation in past sessions changing Missouri’s tax policy.  The budget picture will become clearer after April.

Possible changes to PSRS/PEERS disability benefits will be discussed in further meetings of the board.   

Darren Farmer, one of two MSTA endorsed candidates for the Board of Trustees, attended the meeting to continue to learn about the system.

Darren Farmer of Polo and Dr. Melinda Moss of Joplin have been endorsed by MSTA for positions on the board.  So that all members of the system are represented on the Board of Trustees, it’s vital that teachers and women have a seat at the table.  Missouri education professionals believe that Dr. Melinda Moss and Darren Farmer will continue the work of the board to maintain the strength and independence of the retirement system for retired, current and future education employees.

Legislation restricting teacher free speech sent back to committee

HB1347 (Baker) was returned to the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee for further consideration.  This harmful bill modifies the law that currently prohibits the use of public funds for political purposes.  The most concerning part of the bill prohibits Missouri public employees from advocating in the General Assembly, including testifying in favor or against legislation in committee hearings.   

The House Rules Administrative Oversight Committee voted this week to send the bill back to the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee for further modification and consideration on the bill.  MSTA will continue to work with committee members to ensure that dangerous provisions are not included in the bill and teachers will always have a voice when there is legislation that affects Missouri students.   

Voucher bill presented in house committee

HB1733 (Christofanelli) was presented in the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee. The bill creates the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program and creates a tax credit program that could cost the state up to $50 million.   

The use of the voucher would be restricted to students living in counties with a charter form of government and cities with a population of at least 30,000.  Students utilizing the voucher would be allowed to pay for tuition, textbooks, educational therapies, tutoring, curriculum, test, education technology and summer education programs.

HB1733 would create educational assistance organization that would be responsible for managing the program and would be allowed to pull over ten percent of the program funds out of education and used for their own benefit.  The only requirements of the educational assistance organizations would be filing routine financial information.  There are no protections in the legislation that would ensure students are receiving a quality education with taxpayer dollars.   

The State Treasurer would oversee the program, working with educational assistance organizations, but the only student accountability measure is a requirement to conduct a report after the program has existed for five years.  The report is only required to include financial information pertaining to the educational assistance organizations and “educational outcomes” of the students in the program.   

The final section of the bill prohibits any governmental agency from overseeing the schools or programs that the voucher would be used for.  The bill also states that “a qualified school shall not be required to alter its creed, practices, admissions policy, or curriculum in order to accept students whose parents pay tuition or fees from an empowerment scholarship account to participate as a qualified student.”

MSTA testified against the bill. This tax credit voucher bill will cost the state of Missouri over $50 million each year, while K-12 transportation is still being underfunded by over $150 million, and Missouri education professional salaries fall further and further behind both neighboring states and the national average.  This legislation permits institutions to discriminate based on race, creed, gender, national origin or religion while using taxpayer funds.  Similar to other versions of education savings accounts and previous legislation, the bill fails to have any meaningful accountability.  Missouri public schools must provide services to students and ensure that professional staff has the tools and education necessary to meet a diverse student population. HB1733 creates an even larger bureaucracy, outside of the oversight of Missouri citizens or even the General Assembly. Allowing education assistance organizations to fleece millions of taxpayer dollars for the operation of the program, vital tax dollars that could be used to support the diverse needs of Missouri students. 

Gifted Education bill heard in Senate

The Senate Education Committee heard SB645 (Hoskins). The legislation is similar to HB1317 (Sommer).  The bill would mandate that in any district with at least 3 percent or more students determined to be gifted, the district must establish a state-approved gifted program.   

The bill also requires that any school district with more than 350 students must have a teacher certified to teach gifted education. In districts under 350 students, the teacher or teachers providing gifted instruction must participate at least six hours of professional development focused on gifted services. The State Board of Education must determine standards for gifted programs and gifted services.

Bill Summaries

House 

Elementary and Secondary Education

HB1483 (Rehder) requires adult students to undergo background checks before attending certain classes in public school.

HB1733 (Christofanelli) establishes the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program. See story for more information.

Executive Session

HB1682 (Wood) prohibits vapor product usage in indoor areas of public schools or on school buses. Voted do pass with committee substitute.

HB1808 (Wood) requires school districts to include instruction on the harmful use and effects of vapor products.  Voted do pass with committee substitute.

HB1817 (Dinkins) excludes certain administrative penalties from the calculation of local effort in Iron County.  Voted do pass.

HB1818 (Dinkins) removes increase in the amount received from fines for school purposes from the calculation of local effort for school districts.  Voted do pass.

Rules-Administrative Oversight

Executive Session

HB1347 (Baker) changes the law relating to the prohibition on expenditure of public funds to support or oppose candidates and prohibits public employees from testifying on legislation except for information purposes only.  Returned to committee without amendments. See story for more information.

Special Committee on Career Readiness

HB2317 (Christofanelli) establishes the Cronkite New Voices Act.

Senate

Education

SB645 (Hoskins) requires school districts with a certain number of gifted students to establish a state-approved program for those students. See story for more information.

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