Perspective: Free to choose a better school

What would you do if you were a parent who lived in a failing school district and lacked the means to move? What would you want most for your child’s education? Would you want your child to have the same opportunities that children of wealthy parents have?

This week the Missouri House passed legislation designed to empower parents in struggling school districts to choose a better life for their children. Senate Bill 493, the so-called “transfer law fix,” aims to improve performance in struggling school districts through increased tutoring, enhanced early reading programs and extended school days. It also gives the State Board of Education flexibility to take over failing schools in failing school districts, and requires the state board to proactively help struggling school districts improve test scores and other results.

The bill also seeks to save failing school districts from bankruptcy. Under the current transfer law, students in unaccredited districts have the right to transfer to any school district in the same or an adjoining county. The failing district is then forced to pay for 100 percent of the tuition costs at the receiving school. This sounds fair, but it’s not.

The current tuition costs bankrupt the failing schools and result in financial windfalls for the receiving schools. For example, Francis Howell, a receiving district, will receive twice as much tuition for transfer students than what it actually spent to educate those students. While the unaccredited Normandy school district struggles to remain solvent, Francis Howell will pocket over $1.4 million in profit this year. The House version of SB 493 sets the tuition rate at 70 percent of the sending district, which is more than enough to compensate the receiving district’s marginal cost of educating the transfer students.

Most importantly, the bill gives parents the freedom to choose the best school for their children. Under the current transfer law, every student in an unaccredited district is permitted to transfer out-of-district. This ignores the fact that not all schools in unaccredited districts are the same. In fact, some schools in unaccredited and provisionally accredited schools are excellent or, at least, accredited.

SB 493 limits the right to transfer to those students who attend unaccredited schools. But it then opens a variety of options for parents. First, students in unaccredited schools are given the option to transfer to an open seat in an accredited school within their own district. After those seats are filled, students may transfer to any public school in the same or an adjoining county, to a charter school within their district of residence or, in St. Louis or Kansas City, to a private non-sectarian school near their home.

In my three years on the House Education Committee, I’ve heard the chorus of criticisms against proposals to provide poor parents who can’t afford private school tuition or to move to a better neighborhood with the freedom to send their children to private schools with public funds. In SB 493, we amended the private option to assuage all of those criticisms.

First, critics claim the option is unconstitutional. We fixed this potential problem by limiting the option to only those schools which are allowed to receive public funding under the Missouri and United States Constitution. The Blaine Amendment to the Missouri Constitution prohibits any public money from going to schools controlled by a religious denomination. As a result, parochial schools are eliminated from the program.

Second, critics claim the private option for St. Louis or Kansas City would harm education funding in the rest of the state. We fixed this potential problem by limiting funding for the private option to in-district funds. Under SB 493, the private option excludes state money.

Third, critics claim private schools will cherry-pick students for academic or athletic prowess. SB 493 strictly prohibits the transfer board from considering academic success, athletics, or poverty status in making school assignments.

Fourth, critics claim a private option would just lead to children who would otherwise be in private schools, siphoning money away from public schools. Despite the fact that this criticism treats private school parents and children as second-class citizens unworthy of equal benefits from their taxes, SB 493 requires students must have actually attended an unaccredited school before they are eligible to transfer.

Fifth, critics claim a private option is not fair because private schools are not subject to the same rules and regulations as public schools. We fixed this problem with an amendment to require all private schools which choose to receive transfer students to abide by every state statute and regulation that applies to public schools. Under this amendment, private option schools must give transfer students the same state assessment tests that are given to students in traditional public schools, and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will produce an annual performance report on the private option schools as it does for traditional public schools.

Sixth, critics say it’s not appropriate to spend public money on private institutions when taxpayers voted for levies to go to public institutions. This argument ignores the fact that the state spends approximately $8 billion a year on Medicaid, much of which goes to private medical facilities. The House version of SB 493 deals with this criticism by subjecting the private option to a local vote. Before any student is allowed to transfer to a private school, it must be approved by the voters of the failing district at a general election.

With these changes, SB 493 addressed every substantive criticism against similar “private option” legislation that I’ve heard from defenders of the status quo in failing districts. But it’s still not enough, and it’s easy to see why: individual freedom is scary for people in power. Regardless of the issue in the Capitol, those who hold power fight desperately to keep it.

Just as freedom brings fear to those in power, it brings hope to those to whom it is given. By allowing transfers from unaccredited public schools to nonsectarian private schools, SB 493 would allow children in poverty the opportunity to attend some of the same schools as the children of privilege. For some students, the choice may mean the difference between the American Dream and a life of poverty. With SB 493, the Missouri House chose the American Dream.

State Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, represents Missouri's 60th District.

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