Supporters of the school-choice movement visited the Capitol on Tuesday in an effort to inform themselves - and lawmakers - about the impact vouchers, education savings accounts and tax credit scholarships could have on education in Missouri.
Although the three ideas vary in method, they share a similar concept: Money, which ordinarily might flow into state coffers or be designated for public schooling, is diverted for use by parents who prefer parochial, private and home-schooling solutions.
"No school can effectively meet the needs and desires of every family," said James Shuls, an education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, a St. Louis-based, libertarian think tank led by businessman Rex Sinquefield. "The evidence is mounting that private school choice programs improve outcomes for students, especially disadvantaged students."
Shuls also argued school choice expands liberty and enables parents to exert more authority over the education of their children.
Although a few school-choice bills have been filed this legislative session, most advocates are energized by an initiative petition they hope voters will see in November. Supporters have until May 4 to collect the 220,000 signatures they need to place it on the statewide ballot.
As envisioned, the initiative would create a tax credit for donations to nonprofits like the Helias Foundation Inc. or the Jefferson City Public Schools Foundation. In the public setting, donated funding could improve programming; in the private schools, the donations would provide scholarships. The monies could also be used to expand services for children with disabilities.
Under the proposal, taxpayers who give donations may claim tax credits equal to 50 percent of their gift. So a person who donates $1,000 to the foundation of their choice would earn a $500 credit off their state tax bill. The annual cumulative amount would be capped at $90 million. The state commissioner for the Missouri Board of Education would be charged with allocating the credits among the public, private and special education foundations.
"It's a way to empower local communities," said Mike Hoey, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference.
He noted people who are already inspired to give to the schools will be galvanized to give even more, knowing they'll receive a tax credit for their efforts. "We feel this is a creative way for public and non-profit foundations to increase their donations," he added.
Shuls noted that tax-credit scholarships have the "best chance for being legal under our Constitution."
Hoey said it's possible, although unlikely, a state lawmaker may introduce and pass similar legislation this session, thus bypassing the need for a statewide referendum. "But it's difficult to get something passed in the General Assembly because of opposition from the unions and teacher groups," Hoey explained.
Brent Ghan, spokesman for the Missouri School Boards' Association, called the initiative "very troubling." He noted the wording of the initiative petition also repeals constitutional language that prevents government from appropriating public monies for religious or private school purposes.
Ghan added: "We have nothing against private schools ... they do a very good job of educating students. But they should not receive taxpayers' money because they are not accountable in the same way public schools are. That's been the general consensus of Missourians for a long, long time."
Hoey believes their fears are misplaced.
"We think that's unjust, unnecessary and short-sighted," Hoey said.