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Legislative candidates differ on education issues

Thursday, October 30, 2008 | 6:45 p.m. CDT; updated 2:42 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 11, 2008

COLUMBIA — Public education funding will not be exempt from the nation's flagging economy and Missouri's tightening budget. Funding for K-12 education is a contentious issue, and educators' demands for higher salaries and greater resources are as present as ever.

Under a new funding formula approved in 2005, Columbia Public Schools is slated to receive $7.13 million over a seven-year period. Under the old foundation formula, the district received between $1.5 million and $2.2. million each year.

"We're not getting less than we did five years ago, but the growth that we would be getting year to year has leveled off," , said Lynn Barnett, assistant superintendent at Columbia Public Schools.

"We're not getting as large of increases each year, and we've had to adjust to that," Barnett said.

Beyond funding, legislators might face difficult decisions regarding the rights of education employees. Teachers' unions and associations are trying to turn 2007's Missouri Supreme Court ruling that allowed them collective bargaining rights into concrete legislation.

The Missouri legislature will also see another push for tax-credit tuition programs. Last year, some Republicans and urban Democrats supported a measure that would have given tax breaks to those who gave money to scholarship-granting organizations. The scholarships, in turn, would allow students in failing public schools to attend private institutions.

Here's a look at how local legislative candidates stand on education issues:

19th District state senator

Incumbent Democrat Chuck Graham said he opposes a voucher system for K-12 education. He criticized the proposal as "starving public education of resources."

He said expectations of how teachers conduct their lessons need to change.

"We need to change the way we are asking teachers to teach to a MAP test, and we need to let teachers teach," Graham said.

Graham voted against the new funding formula for K-12 education.

Republican Kurt Schaefer said he believes the readjusted funding formula for K-12 is more equitable than before but falls short of providing full funding. He said that although the formula will be fully funded, "I think we need to accelerate that to make it funded now," Schaefer said.

Libertarian Chris Dwyer said privatization is not a good idea for K-12 education. He opposes vouchers, tax credits and the federal No Child Left Behind program, proposing that public education should be a matter ofcommunity or state interest.

"We need to let the community or state decide what the needs of their students are," Dwyer said.

21st District state representative

Incumbent Republican Steve Hobbs said Missourians have not yet decided whether vouchers for students to attend privates schools are a sound way to approach education. Though he voted for a voucher-like program for students in St. Louis, he said there is no need to talk seriously about acting on them until there is more consensus.

"Competition in the schools is healthy, and it's good," Hobbs said. "And I have a great amount of sympathy for a family who has been in a failing school district for generations. ... Local people have to be the ones to make these decisions. It's our job at the state level to help them do that by providing resources."

Democrat Kelly Schultz said she is most concerned about making classroom sizes smaller and paying teachers higher salaries. Smaller classrooms allow teachers to meet the individual needs of students.

Too many good teachers are leaving education because they can't make enough to support their families, Schultz said. Funding is a matter of priorities, Schultz said, noting that the House has 13 chances each year to make funding decisions during the appropriations process.

Schultz said she opposes vouchers.

"I'm a strong supporter of public schools that benefit all schools and all children," she said. "I don't believe in siphoning off a few lucky students and leaving the rest behind."

Additionally, Schultz said rural communities are negatively affected by costs for transportation. Schultz would work to get additional money to rural communities to cover that cost, she said.

24th District state representative

Incumbent Republican Ed Robb said he stands behind the current foundation formula. In 2005, the legislature changed how state money was allocated toward public school districts by creating an adequacy target for per-pupil spending.

"The old formula had lots of problems," Robb said. "For one, it became impossible to fully fund it."

Columbia public schools receive less under the new formula than they would have under the old formula, but Robb said he thinks the bigger problem of the current formula is that it doesn't require school districts to pay for gifted education programs.

"That's an aspect we tried to change, and I will keep working on," Robb said. "Schools receive money for funding these programs, but a lot of them just don't do it."

Robb introduced legislation in 2007 that would give 65-percent tax credits to taxpayers who contribute money to scholarship-granting organizations. He said he thinks private investment and individual choice will do more to serve Missouri education than new taxes.

"It would be unconscionable to lock students in failing schools," Robb said. "Throwing more money at the problem won't accomplish anything."

Former Democratic legislator Chris Kelly said he adamantly opposes the proposed tax-credit tuition scholarships. He, along with the Columbia chapters of the Missouri National Education Association and the Missouri State Teachers Association, would call these scholarship programs "vouchers."

"We should be investing more in our schools, not just walking away from our responsibilities," Kelly said.

"(Advocates of tuition-tax credits) are trying to get the government to subsidize their own personal choices."

Kelly said K-12 funding needs to be increased and the current funding formula needs improvement.

"I'll be on the foundation formula like a duck on a june bug," Kelly said. "They wouldn't fund the formula fully as it existed so they just changed the formula. ... It was a bait and switch."

25th District state representative

Democrat Mary Still said she would work to maintain the high standard of Columbia's public schools by working to increase teacher salaries, keep class sizes small and get more accountability from the classroom.

Still proposed that the state "put commercial real estate tax into the foundation formula and divide that money by pupil."

Right now, Still said, districts such as Ladue receive a great deal of their revenue from Monsanto, an agriculture company with its world headquarters in St. Louis.

"I believe that public schools are the great equalizer," Still said. "There's no reason we can't all benefit from those companies by putting that money into the foundation formula."

She said she is against any form of voucher or tax credit that would provide money to parents to send their kids to private or parochial schools. Still said such programs hurt public schools and raise issues about the separation of church and state. She also raised a different point.

"Many places in Missouri do not even have private schools," she said.

Still does not support Proposition A, which is officially titled "Schools First Elementary and Secondary Education Funding Initiative." It would lift the state's gambling loss limit and boost taxes on casinos.

"It is misleading to people," Still said. "They try to sell it as being helpful to public schools, but it isn't."

Still said that in addition to furthering the social costs of gambling, Proposition A would convince voters that the public school system is well-financed by casinos.

 "It's just a drop in the bucket," Still said.

Republican candidate Ryan Asbridge is deployed with U.S. Naval Intelligence, and his campaign declined to comment on his behalf.

Missourian reporters Jenn Herseim, Chris Dieterich and Hayley Tsukayama contributed to this report.


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