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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

On the Trail: Would Missouri's gubernatorial hopefuls draw a line on 'voucher' proposals?

Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Chris Koster talks with supporters on Saturday in St. Louis. Koster says he's opposed to school vouchers, but is amenable to charter schools.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Chris Koster talks with supporters on Saturday in St. Louis. Koster says he's opposed to school vouchers, but is amenable to charter schools.

Even before he became governor, Jay Nixon drew a hard line in the sand: If the Missouri General Assembly passed any bill that Nixon felt transferred public dollars to private schools, he would veto that legislation. He followed through on that promise in 2014, when the General Assembly approved changes to Missouri’s school transfer law that, among other things, allowed children in unaccredited school districts to go to certain nonsectarian, private schools.

Whether that “line” remains, however, depends on who replaces Nixon in the governor’s office.

The Democratic and Republican hopefuls for governor have different views about Nixon’s stance against any sort of public support of private schools. During a campaign stop in St. Louis on Saturday, Koster told St. Louis Public Radio that he would take a similar philosophical view as Nixon.

“For us to track public money the way we need to, it has to go to places where there is transparency, accountability and oversight,” said Koster, Missouri’s attorney general. “Public government has the responsibility of making sure the recipients of public money meet a certain standard. And so, one of the problems with vouchers is that we lose track of the public money. We can’t ensure that type of accountability, oversight and transparency. There’s also the constitutional problem of the restriction of public money into religious organizations.”

Koster’s statement about “school choice” is likely to prompt a sigh of relief from many Democrats. Many Missouri Democrats made opposition to vouchers, tuition tax credits, or private school transfers a cornerstone of the party’s messaging. Had Koster taken the opposite view, it’s not inconceivable (though not an automatic certainty) that legislative efforts to pass tuition tax credits or other voucher-like programs could have had a better pathway to implementation.

Asked whether he would have signed the 2014 school transfer bill into law, Koster said he would have to look over the legislation’s components. He added, though, “as a philosophical matter, vouchers to private schools are outside of the educational parameters that I would advocate for.”

Koster said where he does "favor and promote choice is in the charter school arena.” He contended that charter schools are “lifting up” the St. Louis School District and “transforming” the Kansas City School District.

“And so parents are doing what parents do. They are making decisions that they feel are in the best interest of their children,” Koster said. “When you have an urban school district like Kansas City that has become a majority charter school district now, we are seeing for the first time in a long, long time parents migrating toward an urban area because of education — and not migrating away from it.

“This type of school choice, which I would want to promote as governor across the state, is lifting education up,” he added.

Greitens’ 'line in the sand'

Nixon made that commitment to veto “voucher” bills when during his first run for governor. He told attendees at a smoky central Missouri country club: “No matter which way they call it, no matter what moniker they try to put on it, when you take public dollars and give those dollars to private schools, you are underfunding and cutting public schools. And that’s a voucher. And if it gets to my desk, I’ll veto it.”

Eric Greitens with john brunner and peter kinder.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
GOP gubernatorial nominee Eric Greitens refused to draw a similar "line the sand" that Nixon did.

After hearing that Nixon clip during a recent appearance of Politically Speaking, GOP gubernatorial nominee Eric Greitens replied: “What’s so terrible about that answer that you heard is he didn’t talk at all about kids.”

“My line in the sand is that we’re going to do whatever is right for kids. And we’re actually going to look at results,” Greitens said. “And what matters at the end of the day is if our kids can read, if our kids can do math, if our kids can spell. We owe those kids a fair shot at the American Dream. And I think it’s terrible for any politician to take something off of the table for political reasons that might actually help our kids. If it’s going to work for our kids, then you need to give it a shot.”

GOP gubernatorial nominee Eric Greitens is asked about Nixon's "line in the sand" during an appearance on Politically Speaking earlier this year.

Greitens then cited his experience working in places like Bolivia and India where religious organizations helped lower-income children. When asked if he would have signed the 2014 school transfer bill, Greitens replied: “I will consider anything where there is quality evidence to show me that this is going to change the lives of our kids.

“If it works for kids, I’m going to be behind it,” he said.

Greitens reiterated this stance during St. Louis Public Radio’s GOP gubernatorial debate.There, he said it’s “absolutely essential that we do everything we can to make sure kids in Missouri have a shot at a quality education.”

“My life changed because I got a quality education. That enabled every opportunity that came my way. And the fact is, there are lots of kids and parents in the state of Missouri who simply aren’t getting a shot at a quality education,” Greitens said. “So what we need to do is expand every opportunity that we can to make sure that there are more choices for those kids who are in failing schools. More choices for kids who have special needs.”

Rare concurrence?

Koster and Greitens are probably going to diverge on lots and lots of issues as the contentious campaign for governor goes forward. But one area of agreement is a proposed tobacco tax hike.

The proposal, widely known as “Raise Your Hand for Kids,” would increase tobacco taxes by as much as $1.27 on a pack of cigarettes.The money would pay for health care and education programs for children.

A tobacco use study involving every county in Mo. is underway. (via Flickr/LawPrieR)
Credit LawPrieR|Flickr
A tobacco use study involving every county in Mo. is underway. (via Flickr/LawPrieR)

Whether the constitutional amendment gets a vote during the November election is up in the air. While Secretary of State Jason Kander is expected to announce whether the initiative has enough signatures in the coming days, the initiative is facing several potentially derailing lawsuits.

Even if it makes the ballot, Greitens and Koster are among opponents. Greitens came out against the proposal during a KTVI debate earlier this summer, stating that he doesn’t “support increasing the tax burden, because just spending more money on broken systems doesn’t work.”

“Politicians always want to solve problems just by spending more money,” Greitens said. “We need to spend money on things that work.”

Koster said on Saturday while he’s “very much in favor of the spirit of the proposal,” he’s “not in favor of it in the concrete fashion that it has been put forward.” He pointed to how R.J. Reynolds (the tobacco company) largely funded the proposal, as well as misgivings with how the proposal was crafted.

“I'm not alone in this assessment, unfortunately,” Koster said. “The (National Education Association) is against it.The Rural Educational Association is against it.Missouri Cures is against it.Washington University is against it. These are highly thought of organizations. And it pains everybody to make these observations, but that is the situation."

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics. 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.