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Charter school bundle clears first hurdle in Senate committee

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Senate Education Committee voted out a large education package that would allow charter school expansion, change the way state funding is allocated for virtual learning, and encourage public schools to allow homeschooled children to participate in school sports, among other measures. 

The bill was sponsored by Republican Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, who chairs the committee. 

“Education is such an integral part of our society and it is ever-changing. This bill covers many aspects of education and is a joint effort by many senators,” O’Laughlin told The Missouri Times. “I look forward to working with both sides of the aisle in an effort to improve outcomes.”

Originally, SB 55 only compelled public schools to allow homeschooled students to participate in after school activities by disallowing them from being members of statewide activities associations, such as the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA), that would prohibit them from doing so. 

But multiple different bills were rolled into the measure, including one section to redirect state funds away from public schools if students are attending virtual classes. That money would instead go toward the Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program (MOCAP).

The most contentious part of the bill, however, is a provision that would allow charter schools to be established in any municipality with a population above 30,000 residents and establish the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program, which would set up a tax credit to help parents pay for their child’s education. Currently, charter schools are only allowed in the Kansas City 33 School District or the St. Louis Public School District. 

Sen. Elaine Gannon was the lone Republican to vote against SB 55 along with the three Democrats who serve on the committee. The bill is also opposed by the Missouri State Teachers Association.

“Students, teachers and Missouri communities benefit from strong public education in Missouri,” the MSTA said in a statement to The Missouri Times. “The legislation as drafted fails to address long standing concerns from education professionals regarding taxpayer funding of private education, and the statewide expansion of a broken charter school model.”

School choice advocates, on the other hand, were pleased with the vote, and quick to express support. Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri’s (CEAM) Executive Director Laura Slay said her organization is closely following the issue. 

“The education system’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has only made more stark the failure of a one-size-fits-all approach to student learning,” Slay said in the statement after the bill was approved by the committee. “We have a unique opportunity now to learn from those mistakes and enact meaningful education reform that works for all children and their families, not just those with the most resources.”

SB 55 would also limit members of State Board of Education Members to one eight-year term. Currently, when a board member’s term expires, he or she continues to serve until replaced or reappointed. The board is made up of eight citizens appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. 

Additionally, the bill contains a section to establish a recall procedure for local school board members which allows a recall election to be held if 25 percent of registered voters who voted in the most recent school board election sign a petition.

Now that the bill has passed out of committee, it will move to the Senate floor for debate.