School choice advocates like Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and two advocates who spoke with members of Cole County Republicans on Thursday evening seek to provide alternatives to traditional public schools.
Some such measures have gained traction in the state Legislature this session.
Kristian Starner spoke to about 20 Cole County Republican members at the Cole County Sheriff's Office. Starner said there are people in the state who feel the educational needs of their children are not being adequately met because they live in the wrong zip code or can't afford private school tuition. She is an associate with the political consultant firm Axiom Strategies, which has an office in Kansas City.
The other speaker was Peter Franzen, associate executive director of the St. Louis-based school choice advocacy group Children's Education Alliance of Missouri.
Franzen said for most of the state and nation's history, people have focused on buildings and districts when it comes to public education, what he called a "one size-fits all model where we sort kids by age, and we move them through a process that assumes all kids learn the same way, at the same pace."
He and his organization instead want to move away from a devotion to buildings or education as an institution, and want to embrace whatever type of school works and produces results.
One non-traditional education model up for debate in the Legislature this session is education scholarship accounts, like those proposed by Senate Bill 313.
Sponsored by state Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, the measure was heard by the Senate Fiscal Oversight Committee and is on the formal calendar for a third reading.
If enacted, the bill would establish a statewide scholarship account to be funded by tax-creditable donations — up to $25 million worth per year, adjusted annually for inflation. Allocation of those funds for education would take place on a first-come, first-served basis.
Students eligible to receive funds from the scholarship account must have a statutorily defined disability, be a ward of the state or a child with a parent in active military service. A student also would have to have attended a public school previously or be eligible to begin kindergarten.
In exchange for receiving money from the account to attend a private or other qualified school, the student's parents or guardians would have to sign an agreement absolving the local school district of responsbility to educate their child — except for disability evaluations — for as long as a student received money from the account.
Private schools with those scholarship-account students would have oversight procedures under the bill, including a requirement to submit an annual audit to the state treasurer.
State Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, has a similar bill SB32, which is scheduled on the informal calendar to be perfected.
"We know it's not a panacea," Starner said of education scholarship accounts, but added she and others think it's worth exploring as a policy if it helps even a few people.
Much of the discussion at the meeting Thursday revolved around charter schools, which receive local and state funding like their other public school counterparts, but cannot issue bonds or raise tax levies. Charter schools currently operate in Kansas City and St. Louis. Franzen said charter schools can offer faster, more creative responses to educational challenges.
A bill by state Rep. Rebecca Roeber's, R-Lee's Summit, has cleared the House and was heard by the Senate education committee this month. Roeber's bill would allow charter schools to be established in any school district in which at least one school building has received an APR score of 60 percent or less for two of the three most recent reports available as of the date in which the charter school would apply to open.
This would be applicable to Jefferson City, given the recent APR score histories of Thomas Jefferson Middle School and Thorpe Gordon Elementary School.
Franzen was asked if competition is introduced into a local public school system by a charter school, what incentive or ability there would be for a school like Thomas Jefferson to improve as it loses funding when students leave.
His answer was essentially either the district would figure things out and the school would be improved, or the school would close if enrollment dropped off enough.
"I'm simply done telling people that they have to sacrifice their children to a failing school," he said to people who question why the focus should not be solely on fixing existing, poorly-performing public schools.
"I would submit to you that just the possibility of a charter public school happening would change the dynamic between your local school district and parents who are advocating for change and improvement in those school districts. It changes how the status quo listens," he added.