As I reflected on how to tactfully and accurately craft a social media post regarding current legislative actions, I kept being drawn back to the fact that someone has to champion the cause for the overwhelming majority of students, and their parents/guardians, who attend public schools. I also felt it was important that readers understood that I share these feelings directly with legislators as well. I consider Representative Baker a respected friend. In many ways we see the world much the same. However, on the matter of public education we see it from two different perspectives.
In short, some legislators are trying to make law that essentially provides an avenue for families to be able to choose which school their child attends, AND have the state pay for some or all of the cost of that choice.
Some of the ways they build sentiment from the public for this ALTERING OF THE MISSOURI CONSTITUTION is by: creating rules that, by the nature of the rule, cast a negative light on public school districts; by sharing stories of families who are in failing school districts (usually based upon economically disadvantaged areas), suggesting that the rule will have no impact on local public schools, trying to force a belief that competition is the same for school districts as it is businesses, pitting school administrators against teachers, even using a 100-year pandemic to throw shade on public education (some schools in Missouri and across the country still aren’t having seated instruction; however, SW Missouri has been providing seated instruction since September), etc. etc.
The Missouri Constitution states “A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the general assembly shall establish and maintain free public schools for the gratuitous instruction of all persons in this state within ages not in excess of twenty-one years as prescribed by law.”
Before I address elements of the pending bills with some facts, let me first start with an analogy of what is at the core of most of the bills targeted at PUBLIC education. Let's say that everyone can go to a FREE restaurant that has a variety of appetizers, a solid selection of main courses, and even desserts. Some of these free restaurants have better appetizers than others, some may offer a greater soda selection than others, and some may even have better chefs. However, none of them turn away anyone; regardless of how much they eat, how they behave, or whether the parents stay to eat with their children. Across town, there is a restaurant that serves filet mignon, lobster, and tiramisu. However, not all are allowed in (if you eat with your mouth open or are rude to the waiter, you have to leave) and the cost is $25. Those who "choose" to pass on the free meal, and go to the $25 restaurant, want, in this case the state, to reimburse them for part of their cost of making this choice. To further this illustration, they are using failing schools, mostly inner-city, as their reasoning to buoy their efforts.
So you have three students at failing school A. Student 1 has a family with a working car and $10 extra. Student 2 has a family with no working car and $10 extra. Student 3 has no car and no extra money. The state decides to give each student $15 to go to the nice restaurant, if they choose. Which one do you believe goes to the nice restaurant and which ones stay in the failing school? How does this help the failing school?
Now, I will address some of the issues with HB349 specifically. Supporters of HB 349 have suggested that it will not hurt public schools financially, because they are putting money into public education and fully funding the foundation formula. However, last year approximately $1,000,000 was withheld from Neosho, because of withholdings to the formula. A few years back, a cap was put on the State Adequacy Target, because it was evident the school funding formula would never be fully funded at the rate it was growing.
Transportation reimbursement, which is important to Newton and McDonald County Schools, is currently underfunded by $220 million. The state will put $18M into transportation to get it to the 40% funding this new bill calls for, so that they can put $50M (that can grow to $75M) into this voucher tax credit. I will also point out, as an ex-CPA, in order to take a tax credit, one must have a tax burden. So not all will get a tax credit. So to say it won't impact public schools is a bit disingenuous. They want to say that school administrators only care about money. I would say that is not true. What I care about is putting the best people possible in front of our children. At a starting pay of $37,000 for teachers, we are losing that battle. Until we get out of the bottom of teacher pay in the country, we will always claim to need more. "Well, if you were more efficient, you could pay teachers better." Again, I understand a little bit about operating efficiencies, and we can always get better. However, if we took EVERY penny we spent on books, electricity, bus fuel, training, and ALL other operating expenses and put it into salaries for our staff, we would still only be able to get starting pay to $48,000. If we then got rid of all administrators, we could give $2,000 more dollars.
At that point, school personnel would have no place to operate, no supplies to use, no training and no way to get the students to school or feed them, but they would be getting closer to a national standard of pay.
"Well, schools should be more like business where competition is a driver." I've never shied away from competition, ever! However, aside from the fact that schools aren't businesses (we can't market better, change our raw materials, pay for exceptional talent, etc.), competition is typically governed in a manner that all participants play under the same set of rules. This is not the case with what the legislators are doing. Case in point, HB349 allows the students using the "choice money" to choose what accountability assessment they want to use; "ensure that participating students take the state achievement tests, OR nationally norm-referenced tests that measure learning GAINS in math and English language arts, and provide for VALUE-ADDED assessment." We've been asking for growth measuring assessments for years. I could go on about the double standard.
If a student is DISQUALIFIED from the program, "the obligation to provide an education for such student shall TRANSFER back to the student's district of residence." In other words, if one doesn't cut it at the "choice school," the public school will take him back.
Happily, because that is what we do! Finally, the PROFIT-SEEKING group that runs the program can use 10% of the funds for marketing and administrative costs. I could go on, but if you have read to this point, you most likely get the argument. We are not perfect by any means, but I would put the public schools in SW Missouri against anyone. Our people care about the wellbeing of the students in our care, support those who choose to make public education their career, and our communities rely on our public schools to be a partner in the raising of their children. Please familiarize yourself with these education bills and ask the question "are these bills good for ALL of the students in Missouri, SW Missouri, and NEOSHO specifically?” If you do not believe they are, please let your local legislators know.
-Dr. Jim Cummins is the Neosho Superintendent of Schools and writes a column for The Neosho Daily News.