Missouri House Rejects Two School Choice Measures

Published May 1, 2007

In March, the Missouri House of Representatives rejected a school choice bill that would have created tax credits for individuals and businesses. The vote was 96-62.

House Bill 498, sponsored by Rep. Ed Robb (R-Columbia) would have launched the Milton Friedman “Put Parents in Charge” Education Program, giving academically struggling or low-income students scholarships to private schools or public schools outside their home districts.

A similar bill, House Bill 808 sponsored by Speaker Pro Tem Carl Bearden (R-St. Charles), also was defeated 96-62 on March 7.

HB 808 would have established the Betty L. Thompson Scholarship. Under the program, tax cuts would have been given to any taxpayer contributing to a scholarship-granting organization, which would provide vouchers worth an average $5,000 to students until it reached a cap of $40 million per year.

Scant Chance

Brian McGrath, director of programs and state relations at the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, an Indianapolis-based school choice organization, said he hadn’t expected H.B. 498 to pass, even though school choice opponents tend to be more comfortable with tax credits than with other forms of choice, such as vouchers.

“I thought it was unlikely that HB 498 would go anywhere” McGrath explained. “That type of bill basically lets you direct your tax dollars to educational reform. It gets businesspeople involved and appeals to people who oppose vouchers because it puts a layer between the government and the funding.

“It’s a good attempt, but I still prefer vouchers,” McGrath continued. “They are easier to do and don’t involve dealing with tax codes. Plus, it’s more of an efficient way for everyone to get a piece of the education pie.”

Too Little

Though HB 498 would have allowed some parents to send their child to any school they desire, some school choice advocates say it wouldn’t have been enough.

“It is a very limited choice because it depends on how many people donate private money,” explained Mae Duggan, president of Citizens for Educational Freedom (CEF), a Missouri-based school choice organization.

“It is also limited to poor children who receive the scholarship from private foundations,” Duggan continued. “Vouchers are a much broader choice. The tax credit plan is hardly a choice for parents because all they can do is apply. The private foundations decide who gets the money.”

But vouchers would be difficult to achieve in Missouri because of current laws and the political climate, said McGrath. Missouri’s constitution contains a Blaine amendment, which forbids using state funds at “sectarian” schools.

“The teachers association is also playing a big role in impeding school choice measures,” McGrath added. “The Kansas City and St. Louis school districts are horrible, but the people who work in them are protecting their jobs. The people in rural Missouri have a superintendent that is leaning on them to stay out of it because it may mean that some of the kids would come to their schools and they worry about preserving their superior school system.”

Too Much

According to a March 2006 study conducted by the Friedman Foundation, Missouri high school dropouts take a toll on taxpayers’ pocketbooks. Dropouts from the class of 2005 will cost the state $71 million every year of their lives in Medicaid, incarceration, and lost tax revenue.

McGrath said people in rural areas of the state need to realize they are just as affected by failing public schools as the students who attend them.

“In rural Missouri you may not be concerned about what is going on in the inner city, but you should be,” McGrath said. “You are paying not only for the dropouts, but are also putting tax dollars into a poor system.”

New Strategy

Duggan said CEF is devising a promotional strategy for school choice in Missouri. Although legislation like HB 498 would lead to some degree of choice, she believes a better solution would be to repeal the state’s Blaine amendment.

“The best way toward really having school choice is to have a basic-education student tuition plan,” Duggan said. “I think that rather than all these gimmicks, the basic education of reading, writing, and arithmetic should be provided with the help of a basic grant that would be constructed according to the school. Religion could be added by parental choice, in the case of Catholic schools. Parents would be able to negotiate with schools to create a plan that works well for them.

“The St. Louis public school system is spending $11,000 per child each year, the kids don’t get educated, and the schools are physically dangerous,” Duggan added. “I think parents would be glad to get $500 or $1,000 and arrange for any extra help they can get. Many times, parents are able to work with the schools which provide additional help to low-income children.”

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.

For more information …

“Missouri’s 2005 dropout class will cost taxpayers $71 million dollars every year,” Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation, March 20, 2006, http://www.friedmanfoundation.org/news/2006-03-20.html