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New governor, new momentum for Missouri charter school and school choice advocates

KT Klng | Flickr

Of the hundreds of education bills Missouri lawmakers have filed this session, charter school expansion has the best chance of passing.

Not only is Republican Gov. Eric Greitens an enthusiastic backer of school choice, but charter school advocates say the desire for alternatives to traditional public schools is broadening.

Even the Missouri School Boards’ Association says it won’t try to entirely block charter schools expanding beyond St. Louis and Kansas City, but instead would like to see some limits, including that charters schools are controlled by established districts so there’s accountability for taxpayers. Plus, they want traditional schools to still get the money they need.

Missouri School Boards' Association Executive Director Melissa Randol gives a presentation on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2016, in Jefferson City.
Credit St. Louis Public Radio | Krissy Lane
Missouri School Boards' Association Executive Director Melissa Randol gives a presentation on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2016, in Jefferson City.

The groups that represent the two main sides of education advocacy — school choice and traditional public schools — presented their agendas to lawmakers in the state Capitol in recent days. School Choice Week was in late January, while members of the Missouri School Boards’ Association bent the ears of lawmakers Tuesday.

Charter school group president Doug Thaman says his main focus for the next few months is bringing charter schools to more parts of Missouri.

“We hear from families more and more from throughout the state of Missouri now saying, ‘We’d like to have a charter school, we’d like to have these options,’ and just telling them it’s not available,” Thaman said.

Right now, charter schools, which are independently run but receive public funding, are limited in where they can open and have only sprung up in St. Louis and Kansas City. Thaman is backing a bill that would ease the stipulations for opening a charter school, arguing that parents don’t want to be locked into sending their kids to schools in underperforming districts.

“We just think this is about providing families with equitable choices,” he said. “And in order to do that you have to have expansion throughout. You can’t just limit it to only districts that have a long history of poor performance.”

Thaman says the timing is right for expansion because charters are performing better.

The Missouri School Boards’ Association, the biggest voice for traditional school districts, says it supports the innovative curriculums that charter schools can provide, and is not opposed to them opening, but control of charters should lie with elected school boards, who can keep better tabs on taxpayer’s money.

“We’re accountable to the community,” MSBA executive director Melissa Randol said.

The main message Randol said her group brought to legislators is that public schools need to be fully funded. She is working to explain the “true picture” of public education spending to the governor and others.

Another issue in front of the Legislature is the creation of tax-free savings accounts — taxpayer money that parents could use to pay for private schools. Fourteen states have some form of a savings account for primary and secondary schools, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

When it comes to education savings accounts, Randol and the school board group is strongly against them. The MSBA sees these accounts as opening the door to vouchers, which would allow families to spend public tax dollars on any school, public, charter, or private.

“What it is, is in fact, I'm going to use the voucher word, it's a voucher bill,” Mike Reid, associate executive director of advocacy told school boards association members.

Reid contends the accounts would prevent the state from fully funding public schools because it would bring less tax revenue into the state and shrink the pot available for schools.

“The 100 percent tax credit for private and parochial schools proposed in (the legislation) should only be considered once public school districts are fully funded under existing statute.”

Under the Senate bill establishing savings accounts, anyone could make tax-free donations to nonprofit groups that would use the funds to set up education savings accounts. Then, parents could use those accounts to pay tuition at the school of their choice.

The education savings accounts bill has made it out of committee and is awaiting debate before the full Senate. A charter school expansion been had gone through committee hearings and is expected to be voted on soon.

Krissy Lane contributed.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney.

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.