JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Senate Education Committee heard witness testimony Tuesday for a bill to allow charter schools to be established throughout Missouri, rather than only in certain St. Louis and Kansas City districts.
SB 25, sponsored by GOP Sen. Bill Eigel, would allow charter schools to be established in any municipality with a population of more than 30,000 — which includes an additional 61 school districts around the state. Per Missouri statute, charter schools are only allowed in the Kansas City 33 School District or the St. Louis Public School District.
The bill would also establish the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program which would set up a tax credit to help parents pay for their child’s education.
Eigel’s legislation kicked off what is expected to be a legislative session focused on education reform. After Tuesday’s hearing, the Education Committee will convene to vote on it before it can move to the rest of the upper chamber.
The expansion of charter schools has the support of Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, the chair of the Senate Education Committee; and Sen. Andrew Koenig, who introduced a similar bill focused only on establishing the Scholarship Accounts Program. Many Republicans in both the Senate and the House, as well as statewide officeholders such as Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, support the bill as well.
“School choice simply allows a parent to choose the best alternative for their children. They know them best and want them to achieve all they are capable of, how can this be wrong?” O’Laughlin told The Missouri Times.
Some Democrats on the committee, including Sen. Lauren Arthur, are not so sure about the effectiveness of charter school expansion, however.
“The legislature is charged with funding public education and creating excellent educational opportunities for every child,” Arthur said. “There are policies that we can pursue to accomplish this, improving our schools and creating a world-class education for every student. But the Senate bills heard in committee miss the mark. They privatize education, include no accountability, and divert $50 million to private and religious schools in vouchers. We can and must do better than that.”
The bill was also opposed by representatives from the Missouri School Board Association and the Missouri State Teachers Association, among others during Tuesday’s hearing.
The COVID-19 pandemic has played an outsized role in the push for school reform in the state. Several witnesses who testified in favor of the bill were parents of children who said their public schools were closed due to the virus while neighboring private and charter schools remained open.
“I implore you to pass legislation for student funding for education in K-12 settings. Whether a student is being kept from a classroom due to failures of large school districts to provide safe conditions during public health crises now or in the future … students have a constitutional right to a free and appropriate education,” said Danielle Courtney, a mother from Greenwood.
The hearing was contentious at times, especially during the testimony of Mike Wood, who represents the Missouri State Teachers Association. Koenig and Wood sparred over the accountability of charter and public schools. Noting that public schools in the state had suffered from many of the issues that Wood had mentioned in his opposition to the bill, Koenig pointedly asked: “What would it hurt if we gave these parents the option?”
Sen. Greg Razer, a Democratic member of the committee, noted the heated nature of the discussion.
“When we talk about this issue, K-12 education, tempers get so hot. Everyone wants to make sure that our kids in the state are getting the best education possible. But when the tenor of the debate gets so heated, it’s hard to have discussions where we find a middle ground, and that’s where we need to get,” Razer told The Missouri Times.