Two education bills filed in Missouri during the 2008 legislative session offered a striking contrast between bottom-up school reform approaches emphasizing parental choice and top-down policies that further increase the government’s role in education.
Affirming Parents’ Role
House Bill 1316, the “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” is intended to affirm parental control over the health care and education of their children.
Filed by Rep. Cynthia Davis (R-O’Fallon), the bill would, among other things, reimburse parents who homeschool their children or enroll them in private schools. Reimbursements would cover educational costs incurred by the parents and would be capped at the amount of county property taxes the parents pay that would otherwise end up in the coffers of their resident school district.
Because the bill is intended to help families with children already in private school, rather than extending choice to low-income families who currently don’t have it, some observers have said Davis’s measure won’t attract enough political support to pass. She shrugged off such suggestions.
“This is the right way to do school choice,” Davis said. “All the other ways are using government money. With this bill, taxpayers are using their own money.”
“The impulse of this bill is commendable, but [its] political feasibility is what I’m concerned about,” said Dave Roland, a policy analyst with the Show-Me Institute, a research group based in St. Louis.
Roland says reforms aimed at helping disadvantaged students have a better chance of gaining public support and, in the end, political success.
“There’s political sympathy, and people instinctively want to help underprivileged kids,” Roland said. “By making this a benefit for only those who pay property taxes, it seems to do the opposite. It seems to actually exclude most disadvantaged students. And they are the ones stuck in really, really bad schools.”
Davis disagreed, saying the sympathy argument no longer moves enough lawmakers to act for school choice.
“We’ve tried school choice where we’ve appealed to compassion,” Davis said. “There’s very little compassion in this building.”
At the other end of Missouri’s legislative spectrum is Senate Bill 779, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Smith (D-St. Louis), which would fully subsidize low-income children attending licensed preschools in failing districts that are unaccredited or provisionally accredited.
Only 11 of the state’s 524 districts are not currently accredited. But the list includes St. Louis Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, which was stripped of its accreditation last year by the Missouri Board of Education.
Deputy Education Commissioner Bert Schulte described Smith’s bill as “a way to provide additional resources to this district” by helping low-income children get a solid preschool education.
“The rationale, I think, behind the bill is to assist with preparing these kids with a preschool education that will help them throughout their school years,” Schulte said.
Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.