JEFFERSON CITY — From school choice proposals to new teacher certification requirements, the Missouri House and Senate introduced a slew of education bills this session.
When it comes to school choice, some lawmakers proposed legislation aimed at giving families more options, while others say it shouldn’t be at the expense of pulling funding from public schools. K-12 officials responded to a list of the following bills:
House Bill 543 allows public school students to transfer from the school district they reside in to a different district, and it lets school districts decide whether to participate in the transfer program and how many transfers to allow each year. Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia, sponsored the legislation in hopes of expanding school choice for families across the state. The bill was passed by the House and is waiting on a vote from the Senate.
Senate Bill 55 allows for charter school expansion beyond St. Louis and Kansas City, where the schools could operate “in any municipality with a population greater than thirty thousand” residents. The bill passed through the Senate Education Committee and is waiting on a vote from the Senate.
Senate Bill 95 gives parents the option to enroll their children in Missouri’s virtual education program without a district’s approval. The bill sponsor, Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, hopes to give families more choices after the effects of the pandemic. This bill also passed through the Senate Education Committee and is waiting on a vote from the Senate.
House Bill 349 allows families to apply for a state-supported scholarship, also called an education savings account, to send their kids to private school.
The bill was passed by the House and is waiting on a vote from the Senate.
Despite efforts from certain lawmakers to increase school choice, some K-12 officials said the bills raise concerns.
Matt Michelson, director of education policy for the Missouri State Teachers Association, said MSTA members have expressed concern about school choice bills harming communities because they include open enrollment and displacing funds.
“A lot of those schools are the heartbeat of the community across the state, and when you look at school consolidation, while you might have some students that could benefit from transferring from one district to another, what happens to those students that don’t have that ability?” Michelson asked in connection with HB 543.
Similarly, Ariel Schwarting, co-president for the Columbia Missouri State Teachers Association and a third grade teacher at Grant Elementary, said HB 543 could harm smaller communities by shrinking their typical K-12 student population and potentially leading to teacher layoffs.
“If we have kids from Mexico, Missouri, if we have kids from Ashland and our surrounding areas, then we have this influx of people whose parents maybe own a business in Columbia, or maybe they own land or do something in Columbia to allow this transfer, then we have our Columbia public schools becoming overrun with too many students that we haven’t accounted for before,” she said.
Michelson said MSTA’s biggest concern with charter school expansion is that charter schools aren’t accountable to locally elected school boards. He said all schools should be governed in the way they currently are, where whole communities have the opportunity to vote and voice their opinions.
“Under the charter school model, that’s not the case,” he said. “They have an unelected board, and in fact, those board members don’t even have to be Missouri residents, and then they’re controlling millions of dollars in directing education while still not having the same oversight from (the state) that our traditional public schools have.”
Michelson said allowing parents to apply for an education savings account for private school, as part of HB 349, is unfairly diverting spending that should go toward public education, especially coming off a pandemic.
He said that instead, schools and teacher salaries need support.
Maggie Hunter, PTA teacher representative and third grade teacher at Two Mile Prairie Elementary, also said diverting funding will prevent public schools from providing sufficient learning services they want to offer to students.
Likewise, Schwarting said public schools are already underfunded and have needs that have yet to be met.
Schwarting also said she is not opposed to giving students the option to utilize virtual education as part of SB 95. However, she said while it has been successful for many students in the community, the option should still require a district’s approval to ensure that all students have the resources to be successful in this type of learning environment.
Another bill that raised concerns was House Bill 439, which allows school districts to issue a teaching permit to any individual who does not currently hold a State Board of Education-issued teaching certificate in an effort to solve the teacher shortage in the state. The bill passed through the Emerging Issues Committee and is waiting on a vote from the House.
Hunter said the bill suggests that anyone can become a teacher and that it undercuts the years she spent in school working to be able to do the job effectively.
“If you want more teachers, let’s solve that problem. Let’s look at the pay, let’s make sure that the pay that teachers receive in Missouri is competitive. Let’s make sure that we’re addressing things like teacher burnout,” Hunter said. “We’re trying to put a bandaid on something that needs more help.”
Michelson said that MSTA opposed the legislation, stating that it is not representative of a high standard for teachers.
In order to effectively serve public education in Missouri and fulfill teachers’ needs, Michelson said teachers seek flexibility and support.
For Schwarting, teachers need to know that their voices are heard.
“We’ve been the ones changing from in-seat learning to virtual learning to hybrid learning, and so we need our leaders in Congress and at the (state) Capitol to reach out to actual teachers, not try to make these decisions on their own based on what they’re seeing in their own families or their own communities,” she said. “We need them to reach out to the actual professionals who have the boots on the ground doing all of this.”
Hunter said she hopes for collaborative efforts from parents, teachers, school boards and lawmakers.
“I just wish we could find a way to work together again and work together to do what’s best for kids, because that’s the bottom line and that’s all that any of us want,” Hunter said.