Next week is school choice week. Missouri House Speaker Todd Richardson has promised to expand school choice options to include education savings accounts, and expand current charter and virtual schools programs. One additional option that must be a part of legislation presented to Gov. Eric Greitens during this legislative session is vouchers.
Among the array of school choice possibilities in use nationally, four distinct options emerge: public school choice, private school choice, charter schools, and virtual learning. Three of the four categories listed are options already available in Missouri. Adding vouchers would open up avenues within the private school choice arena.
Missouri offers an excellent online distance-learning program for students and has an established and growing charter school movement, with satisfied parents advocating for more. Why not expand upon that with a voucher program? It could start with offering low-income students who are enrolled in an underperforming school the opportunity to use an educational voucher to attend the private school of their choice. The amount of the voucher would be capped. This would provide those children who have the most need and their parents the opportunity to choose a school that better suits their child while keeping costs under control.
In 2007, Jon Huntsman Jr., then the governor of Utah, signed a statewide school voucher program into law. The “Parent Choice in Education Act” enabled all children in the state to access a scholarship to attend any private school of their choosing. How freeing it must be to remove the requirement that one must live in a “great school district” to access a quality education. Currently 13 states, the District of Columbia and the Douglas County School District in Colorado have voucher programs. Missouri should lead on this issue, and adding a voucher program is a great way to do that.
Opponents of school choice often ignore data showing that support for educational choice options is stronger among millennials. Ed Choice, a charter member of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, found that millennial support for school choice far outpaces that of older Americans.
The Ed Choice survey asked parents about four programs: charter schools, voucher programs, education savings accounts, and tax-credit scholarships. According to Emily Runge of the Show Me Institute, “Over 70 percent of millennial parents support each of the four school choice programs.” Millennials are the current and future parents of the young children who will inherit whatever system we implement today — a system that currently isn’t working well for all children. It’s important that we see directional shifts in parental desires and respond to them appropriately.
Opponents of school choice decry the use of so-called public money to fund private schools. This isn’t a valid argument. Money should follow the child.
There is a wrinkle: the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and, more specifically for Missourians, the Blaine amendment to the Missouri Constitution, which stipulates that “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.”
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that excluding religious institutions from school choice programs and funding amounted to discrimination. The court is currently weighing a challenge to Missouri’s Blaine amendment. Newly inaugurated Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley insists, “Blaine Amendments cannot be allowed to trump the First Amendment.”
I find it amazing, and hypocritical, that some of the most strident opponents of choice opt to send their own children to private schools or have the luxury of a top-rated public school in their neighborhoods.
Douglas Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, had this to say about educational choice: “Missouri’s charter schools have proven that when parents have a choice and students attend the public school best for them they do succeed. We are optimistic with Gov. Greitens and the tenor in the General Assembly that all families in Missouri will finally have the public school choices they deserve and students will no longer be assigned a school because of their zip code.”
I agree. It’s past time that we stopped squabbling over terms like “public and private money” and made a definitive move towards solving our educational deficiencies. There are currently 61 charter schools serving over 23,000 students in our state. More than 85 percent of those children qualify for free and reduced lunch and 10 percent of them are special education students.
While these charter school numbers are encouraging, every year that we dither, thousands of Missouri’s children get mediocre educations and lose their chance at taking hold of the American Dream. The Show Me State can, and must, do better than this.
Read more about what happened to this column HERE.