Missouri Reform Debate Pits Urban Against Rural Districts

Published February 1, 2010

The expression “all politics is local” is holding true in current Missouri discussions about school reform.

Two bills the Missouri General Assembly took up in January—one allowing open enrollment across public school districts, and another permitting charter schools to operate statewide—are getting most of their support from cities and most of their opposition from rural communities.

“It breaks down to more of a rural versus big city debate than a Republican versus Democrat one,” said state Rep. Shane Schoeller (R-Willard), sponsor of the open-enrollment bill.

Schoeller represents a portion of Springfield, the state’s third-largest city. The Springfield School District also happens to be the only one statewide that permits its students to enroll in other districts’ schools. This policy is a path for students in underperforming schools to attain better educations elsewhere, Schoeller says.

“When you give parents the opportunity to choose what school their children go to, that doesn’t necessarily cure the school system,” he said, “but it does improve the opportunities for the parents to help out their children.”

Move Less, Learn More

It might also be easier on the students, says James Shuls, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville. Students’ academic achievement typically drops the first year or two after moving to a new school, he notes. Students who change residences but keep attending their old school might avoid this drop.

“With the high mobility rate among inner-city students, the option of staying in the same school may offer stability they may otherwise be lacking,” he said.

Schoeller said rural teachers and school administrator fear his bill would spark mass departures from their already-small schools. That’s why he’s mandating class-size limits for each school district and barring schools from admitting more students once those limits are reached.

“There are a lot of people opposed to the bill because they don’t know the details of it,” Schoeller said. “They may live in an area where they hear from superintendents, from teachers, from parents that are worried it might hurt their school districts.”

Specialized Learning

State Sen. Robert Mayer (R-Butler), is having an equally hard time gaining support for his bill to allow charter schools to operate in all school districts. They are currently permitted only in St. Louis and Kansas City. Many of Mayer’s Senate colleagues would rather see smaller districts save their funds for traditional public schools.

“The resources for rural schools are already limited, and they argue that to bring in another school would wreak havoc on the resources,” said Mayer. “To what extent that it’s true, though, I don’t know. A lot of rural schools are dependent on state funding.”

Shuls agrees with Mayer on this issue. Charter schools could be great for rural districts, he argues, since the freedom they have in designing courses and curricula would enable them to tailor programs to the interests and needs of a small community’s students—more concentration, for instance, on technical skills applicable to farming, or computer skills that would enable students to find jobs in the city.

“It could teach in the sciences and work in agricultural training, but also teach technology and offer them a way out. It could serve either purpose,” he said.

Countering Misinformation

First, however, charter school advocates will have to assuage the worries of many rural school boards, Shuls said. Fears about a new school taking resources from existing ones carry much more weight in small community than in cities, he said.

“In rural communities, oftentimes the biggest employer is the local school district,” Shuls said. “The local superintendents have more control, and people respect them more than they do in a big city.”

As a result, he suggested, charter schools and their advocates must engage in more dialogue with rural communities and their stakeholders, because they have more misinformation to counter.

“There needs to be more communication about what charter schools are and the benefits they might have in a rural community,” he said.

Legislative Gridlock

The same logic applies to open enrollment, he notes.

“When I hear them say, ‘We’re going to be losing money because the students are going to go somewhere else,’ then the question becomes, ‘Whose money is it?'” Shuls said. “Is it the school district’s money? Are they entitled to it? Or is it the families’ money, because they’re going to a better school district that’s better for their children?”

These dialogues might be difficult to start in the General Assembly, at least for the foreseeable future, Schoeller said.

“We have historically had a difficult time when it comes to opening up opportunities for parents to choose which school they want their children to go to,” he said.

Rick Docksai ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.