Commentary: A crisis of trust

What a difference a year makes. A year ago, parents across the state of Missouri were likely not even aware the last week of January is National School Choice Week. In Missouri, school choice — at least from what I can tell from following the state Legislature — is exclusively a policy for poor children in failing urban districts. Suburban and rural Missourians don’t need school choice because their schools are “good.” Rural districts in particular are often described as “loving” their local schools regardless of how they perform. They’re the center, the heartbeat, of the community. What they provide was good enough for my parents and my grandparents, and it is fine for my children, so the story goes.

Unfortunately, that story fell apart in 2020. Thousands of Missouri students essentially sat out the last couple of months of the last school year, especially in rural districts with technological challenges. This year, as positive COVID-19 tests and the need to quarantine wreaked havoc on school schedules, the number of Missouri students who only had the option of fully remote learning went from around 90,000 in September to 248,000 in December. Blended learning, in which students attend school for a few days a week — which, as a working parent, sounds like a worst-case scenario to me — peaked at around 300,000 students last December. For reference, Missouri has about 900,000 public school students.

The point is we are halfway through a school year in which students and families from all backgrounds and all types of communities across Missouri have learned the hard way what it feels like to have only one type of education available, whether it works for them or not and regardless of how often that one type changes. And goodwill is beginning to slide.

A survey of Missouri parents taken in early December found more than one-quarter of parents would give their child’s remote learning experience this year a grade of “D” or “F.” Parents are worried. Last school year, about half of Missouri parents felt their children were ahead academically, and less than 7 percent felt they were behind. Just 10 months later, only 18 percent of Missouri parents believe their children are ahead, and a troubling 37 percent believe them to be behind.

This concern reflects an erosion of trust in the public school system. Just 47 percent of Missouri parents trust the public school system to make decisions that are in the best interest of their children’s education all the time or almost all the time. Last year, that number was almost 70 percent. Sadly, the percentage of parents who never or only rarely trust the public education system has gone up by 26 points in just one year.

The antiquated system of assigning every student to one, and only one, type of education based on their address has to go. If Missouri wants to rejoin the ranks of states that attract families and businesses, it needs to create a system of education that reflects current and future conditions, not the past. Parents should be able to use public funds to enroll their children in a charter school, a private school, a micro-school or a virtual school. Parents should be able to access public funds to get the tutoring or educational therapies their children need. Regaining the trust of parents must be earned. It should start with trusting parents first.

Our neighbors get it. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has committed to expanding K-12 education options for all Iowa students, including, but not limited to, open enrollment, education savings accounts and expansion of charter schools. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt has expanded scholarship programs for students with disabilities to include religious schools and used flexible stimulus funds to help parents in need to continue to pay for private school tuition. In addition to having more than 40 rural and suburban charter schools, Arkansas allows students the option to transfer out of failing schools. And Arkansas, it should be noted, is brave enough to call them “F” schools.

For far too long, the Missouri Legislature has listened to superintendents and school boards that want to ban any form of school choice happening in their backyard, but parents were put in charge of their children’s education this year. They’ve had some time to consider it. They have concerns. And maybe now the Legislature should listen to them.

Susan Pendergrass is the director of research and education policy at the Show-Me Institute.