It is a basic and most important principle, in fact a mandate, established in the Missouri Constitution: The first funding priority of the Missouri General Assembly, after debt service, is “public education.”
The constitution further requires the general assembly to “establish and maintain free public schools.” It must be understood there is no constitutional provision requiring the legislature to provide funding for “private education.” Neither is there a requirement that the general assembly in any fashion establish and maintain any form of private education.
The requirements are that funding of public education takes priority over all other funding of governmental services and “public schools” are to be established and maintained. The rationale for these important constitutional provisions is quite simple — funds from the public treasury are to be only expended for “public” services and programs, not for private entities.
However, year after year proposals are put forth to provide public funds for private education — in other words, a government subsidy for private elementary and secondary schools. The private school subsidy proposals are usually disguised in any number of ways to divert attention from the true motive and intent — to help fund private schools at the expense of our public schools.
In the past, proposals involved the use of “vouchers.” In the current legislative environment, the private school subsidy is camouflaged in terms such as “education savings accounts” and “empowerment” or “opportunity scholarships.” However, irrespective of terms used to mask the legislation, all such bills end up subsidizing private schools from the general revenue of the state.
The current crop of “private school subsidy bills” generally use the mechanism of the granting of a tax credit to people, businesses and corporations who make donations to tax-exempt organizations who in turn must pay over funds to private school students. While there are portions of the bills that appear to provide funds for public school students, most of the dollars generated under such proposals will end up in the bank accounts of private schools. Public funds used to underwrite and provide assistance for private education.
The proposed system simply uses the taxpayer and the not-for-profit corporation as a pipeline from Missouri‘s general revenue to private schools. By receiving a tax credit for the donation, the taxpayer, in effect, gets back dollar for dollar the donation, up to 50% of the Missouri taxes owed. However, any amount of the credit over the 50% limit is carried forward for up to four years.
The intelligent donor will have a particularly good idea of the tax liability and will, no doubt, structure the donation in an amount approximately 50% of the estimated tax bill. The net effect is that the state, by granting the tax credit, is providing the funds for private education. Both the taxpayer and the not-for-profit entity operating the program simply serve as pass through mechanisms to transfer funds that otherwise would support state services, including public education, to the private educational system.
The legislation currently before the general assembly designed to subsidize private education at the expense of our public schools are House Bill 349 and Senate Bills 55, 23 and 25.
Missouri citizens who understand and appreciate the importance of our public education system must let their Missouri Legislators know of their opposition to these measures. To ensure the constitutional imperative that Missouri maintain its system of public education, we must stop the private school subsidy.
W. B. Tichenor is an attorney in Columbia.