By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org
Referring to a small portion of a bill as a “dangerous voucher scheme,” Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced his plan to veto a bill aimed to fix the state’s school transfer system, which most Missourians agree needs a fix.
“If it doesn’t (become law), people opposed to school choice will say, ‘Oh, this private school choice thing is going to kill the bill,’” said James Shuls, director of education policy at the Show-Me Institute and school choice supporter.
“My response is, ‘No, (it’s) the uncompromising attitude of the establishment that’s going to kill it.’ It’s clear that this is not a pro-school-choice bill. It doesn’t radically expand school choice; it’s far from anything I would like to see,” he said.
“If it goes down because of the private option and the people against the private option are opposing it, I think it’s clear that they’re the ones that killed it and not the ones supporting school choice.”
Two school districts in Missouri perform so poorly they have lost their state accreditation.
In recent years, students in those districts have been permitted to attend schools in neighboring districts. The receiving district then charges the unaccredited district for the cost of educating those children — a cost that’s often higher than the unaccredited district can afford.
One sending district, nearing bankruptcy, filed a lawsuit against the state last week.
Lawmakers floated several bills intending to fix the problem, considering ideas like dissolving the districts and merging them with neighboring districts, or declaring them “achievement districts” modeled after Louisiana’s post-Katrina recovery districts.
Senate Bill 493, which eventually passed both legislative house, offers a variety of adjustments to the educational system as a whole and to the school transfer system. Amid the plethora of modifications to the transfer system is the “private option.”
Instead of simply accrediting whole districts, the state would accredit individual schools. Students who attend unaccredited schools in unaccredited districts could attempt to transfer to an accredited school within their unaccredited district. If that fails, they can attempt to transfer to an accredited school in a nearby accredited district, or — if local voters approve it — to “a nonsectarian private school in the district of residence.”
“There is a small victory for choice supporters,” Shuls said. “When you have nothing, something’s better than nothing, so there is a ray of hope in it, a small glimmer in there, but to characterize this as a school choice bill is a mischaracterization.”
Shuls said the bill was far from ideal, but he had hoped the governor would sign it.
Nixon’s May 23 veto announcement focused primarily on the private option and chided lawmakers for not fixing the current transfer situation.
“Every child in Missouri deserves a quality public education, and that is why I am vetoing Senate Bill 493,” he said in a statement. “Senate Bill 493 fails to address the challenges resulting from the existing school transfer law and instead, would create even more problems by allowing funds to be used for private schools and pulling the rug out from under students who have transferred.”
The Missouri National Education Association had sent a letter to Nixon asking him to veto the bill, citing the private option and a variety of other concerns.
Otto Fajen, legislative director for MNEA, said lawmakers had missed their chance to pass a real fix that the governor would sign.
“We wanted a more direct approach, a more efficient getting the costs down to something that’s more honest and sustainable and balanced between the sending and receiving districts,” he said.
Lawmakers who supported the bill saw things differently.
“The governor has provided no solutions during this process, offering only a fear-based public relations strategy and rhetoric. This bipartisan bill gave real solutions to real students,” state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal said in a statement. “My disappointment is in knowing yet another few years’ worth of students has been deemed expendable in this political fight.”
A recent survey, released by the Show-Me Institute and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, found a majority of Missouri voters supported school choice. A citizen initiative to provide additional funding for public schools and scholarships for private schools failed to gain enough signatures to land on the ballot.
Contact Mary C. Tillotson at [email protected]