UPDATE: State bill would allow vouchers for Missouri's private schools

Wednesday, February 16, 2011 | 7:25 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Parents would have more control over where their children go to school and how that school is structured under two proposals considered Wednesday by a panel of Missouri lawmakers.

One bill would repeal the Missouri Constitution's ban on public money going to religious schools and allow parents to receive state vouchers for private schools. The other would enable parents, if a majority agreed, to convert a public school into a charter school or get vouchers to send their children elsewhere if they're unhappy with their current school.

The constitutional change could cost the state more than $300 million per year, according to a state financial estimate. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education assumed that parents of all of the state's 85,499 private school students would request such a voucher, at an average cost of $3,643 per student.

Even if the plan is approved by the full House, it would likely be "dead on arrival" at the House's Financial Review Committee because of its expected cost, Rep. Rick Stream said during the House Health Care Policy Committee hearing. Stream, R-Kirkwood, is chairman of the Fiscal Review Committee.

The sponsor, Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, said he would look for ways to decrease the cost of the bill. Barnessaid that the current prohibition is "anti-Catholic" and having state and local funds follow students to other schools could help low-income families afford a private education.

Opposition mostly centered on the proposed amendment's potential cost to the state, as well as the tax money it could pull from local schools.

Rep. Sara Lampe, D-Springfield, said allowing local funds to follow students could be a problem because money paid by taxpayers in one city could end up subsidizing school districts in other cities.

"My local tax dollars in Springfield could walk to Republic, even though the local money in my school is based on the people who live there," she said.

If the full House and Senate approve the amendment, it would then go to voters.

Vouchers for attending other public or private schools also are an option under legislation sponsored by House Majority Leader Tim Jones. That bill would trigger a school restructuring if a majority of the students' parents sign a petition.

The bill offers three options for change: converting the school to charter governance, which is free from certain state regulations; closing the school; or forcing the district to give parents vouchers so their children can attend a private school or different public school.

Some lawmakers and others who testified Wednesday took issue with giving parents direct control of a school's format rather than an elected school board.

Dave Wright, president of the Missouri School Boards' Association, called the bill's three options "simple and unproven" and inadequate for solving schools' complex problems. He also said parents of a single school shouldn't be given direct power over it because their decisions affect local property owners who pay taxes to the school district.

"There is a huge difference between being an active and involved parent and governing and managing our local schools," said Wright, who is also a member of the school board in Blue Springs.

Jones and other supporters said that if parents feel a school's format should be changed entirely, the local school board has failed to do its job. They said taxpayers without children at a school shouldn't have more power than the parents of students at the school.

"Parents should be the boss, not the school board," said Jones, R-Eureka. "If you can get 51 percent of parents anywhere to agree on anything beyond a school mascot, you've probably got a very serious issue somewhere."

Jones said lawmakers in 12 other states are considering similar legislation.

The hearings on the two Missouri proposals came three weeks after Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and some lawmakers called for changes to the state's public schools, including ending teacher tenure and the practice of social promotion. Kinder arrived during the hearing for Jones' bill Wednesday and took a seat at the front of the crowded committee room. The committee's chairman invited him to testify, but Kinder declined.

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