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School choice would solve MO’s actual problems, analyst says

By   /   January 15, 2014  /   No Comments

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

Missouri lawmakers are looking at legislation to fix the issue of students attending schools in failing districts.

WRONG PROBLEM: Missouri lawmakers are looking for solutions to the wrong problem, Shuls says.

But many of the ideas lawmakers are passing around ignore the root issue, said James Shuls, director of education policy at the Show-Me Institute.

“It’s hard to come to a consensus on what the fix should be when you don’t agree on what the problem is,” he said.

In Missouri, schools that don’t perform well lose their accreditation. A few years ago, a law was passed allowing students from unaccredited districts to transfer to nearby districts. Unaccredited districts were required to pay tuition at the receiving district.

While the law, which the state Supreme Court upheld twice, provided families with more — and often better — educational options for their children,  the unaccredited districts and receiving districts raised concerns.

Tuition at the receiving districts is often significantly higher than at the unaccredited districts, straining budgets, and receiving districts often don’t want to take the students.

“If the local school districts really wanted to not bankrupt the other districts, they could just charge less tuition. They could set a lower tuition rate themselves, but they’re not doing it. They’re using bankruptcy of these unaccredited districts as a bargaining chip,” Shuls said.

The Senate education committee has agreed to accept at least three bills designed to address the school districts’ concerns, and a dozen more are expected to follow. Solutions proposed in the bills include accrediting individual schools in unaccredited districts and allowing intra-district transferring, allowing receiving schools to establish class sizes and limit incoming students to available seats and requiring unaccredited districts to provide free tutoring for their students.

“The problem here is the kids don’t have access to quality schools, so we have to figure out how to expand school choice,” Shuls said. “It’s a bad idea to try to fix the problem by limiting choice.”

Private school choice is a hard sell in Missouri, Shuls said. Almost the entire state is rural except St. Louis and Kansas City, where the three unaccredited districts are. The state’s rural areas have few private schools, and the local public education officials have strong political power. Congressmen representing the rural areas are unlikely to support legislation that would irk their more powerful supporters without benefiting their constituents, Shuls said.

A small, targeted bill could stand a chance, he said. But so far, almost nothing has been proposed.

Senate Bill 516 would allow for very little private school choice. If a student attending an unaccredited school cannot transfer within the district to an accredited school, that student can transfer to a school in a nearby accredited district or to a “nonsectarian” private school in the student’s district. The student’s assigned district foots the tuition bill.

“The upside to private school choice is it solves a lot of the problems. It limits the students transferring to other districts. It reduces the financial burden on the unaccredited ones, since they’re not paying tuition anymore,” he said. “It lessens the financial burden and expands choice for kids, so I think it addresses many of the problems.”

Missouri National Education Association did not return a call for comment.

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.

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Mary C. Tillotson is a national education reporter for Watchdog.org. She has reported for School Reform News, published by the Heartland Institute, and The St. Ignace News in northern Michigan. Contact Mary at mtillotson@watchdog.org.