The Missouri Legislature is About to Cancel Public Education

SB55 Sounds Harmless on Paper. It's an end-run around public school funding, teachers, and ultimately, quality education.

We've talked at length on the pod about the attacks on public infrastructure (health, wages, unions, women's healthcare, schools) and how the most dangerous attacks are always framed with the words "choice."

Today, the buzzword is "school choice" and what that means for Missouri is empowering lawmakers to take very public money (aka your taxes) and allow those very funds to be used in very private ways.

Why is this important?

Recently on the Heartland POD, we discussed a very real and very dangerous (although it sounds like the stuff of fiction) slate of conservative legislation that was heading its way to Missouri and states like it. Its name? Project Blitz. Summary: Conservative groups are targeting the fine line between public and private institutions for the sole purpose of deregulation and undermining local oversight. Heartland Strong stands for building better communities and the issue of public education is an important part of that mission.

The Missouri GOP supermajority introduced legislation this week that would do more to undermine the liquidity and stability of public education than any other bill in a century. The proposal, a

combination of three Senate Bills now all wrapped together as “SB55” is the kind of legislation that can only find a foothold in a state where one party has total control. The language of SB55 seems innocuous enough, and that’s by design.

“School choice” sounds as harmless as “right to work” but school choice bills are as anti-union as the very nuanced legislation behind right-to-work laws are. SB55 does a lot of things, the results of which would unquestionably lead to long-term insolvency for public education throughout the state. That’s not an accident. That’s the intent.

Conservative lobbyists love to use the word “choice” and “rights” in deceptive ways to undermine labor rights and publicly funded institutions. Why? Because privatization entitles them to make as much money without any measurable consequences. Take money out of the public stream and away from oversight, then put it into private pockets. It is as simple as that.

What does SB55 Do?

SB55 allows public funds to be allocated to private institutions, including religious schools.

We don’t have a problem with religious education. The Constitution affords parents that kind of choice already. The problem is the use of public funding for private institutions. Blending public funds and religious institutions is a subtle but defined way to undermine the basic principle of the separation of church and state. It’s also a way for non-certified educators and organizations to fly under the radar of widely-accepted and regulated educational standards.

The vast problem with the language of the bill is that it entitles any private school to have access to a vast trove of funds intended for the public good. And that is very, very dangerous.

Every child should be entitled to a public education. This bill will immediately divert funds from public schools without any oversight or management, undermining access to a public education for students who aren’t fortunate enough to be able to pay for private access. It simultaneously hands over a wide blanket of authority of school choice and quality to often unregulated and non-accredited institutions. This is an issue that has the ability to negatively impact both urban and rural access to public education.

The bill immediately entitles the expansion of charters in any municipality with just 30,000 residents. For those of you who live out of state, this is a very specific number. St. Louis County and rural Missouri both are full of small municipalities with relatively small populations. Right now, charters are only allowed in two districts (one in Kansas City and the City of St. Louis schools).

MO SB55 bill also:

  • Includes an amendment that would require parental permission to teach any material that discusses “human sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases”

  • Establishes 8-year terms for school board members

  • Establishes a tax credit for private school tuition

  • Sets the stage for furthering undermining public school standards and teacher’s unions

Missouri Speaker Threatened Lawmakers Who Didn’t Support The Bill

In a development last night, the Missouri Times reported that Speaker and bill sponsor Rob Vescovo threatened the future of lawmakers’ bills if they didn’t support this highly controversial piece of legislation. According to the Times report House members (who spoke anonymously) believe that “a handful of prize chairmanships were given out to legislators who were willing to flip their stance on education reform.” Said another way: this bill is so unpopular that the only way the GOP leadership could get it through was threats and cronyism to members of their own party. Since Missouri’s state assembly is built upon wildly gerrymandered districts the Democrats have little power to stop this kind of legislation without Republican defection.

This morning, after 12 hours of debate and the Times revelations about Vescovo’s bullying and back room dealing, the bill hasn’t moved. A provision that would have set a very low bar for recalling a school board member has also been removed since the Senate introduced the bill on the floor yesterday.

Experts and legislators remain confident that it will get out of the Senate and head straight to the Missouri House where it faces another GOP supermajority. There’s no question that Missouri Governor Mike Parson would sign this into law if it makes it to his desk.

Charter Schools Have a Terrible Failure Rate

There is certainly a place in our public education system for alternative educational facilities, and local jurisdictions deserve the autonomy to determine exactly where a charter school is appropriate. That is not what this legislation does. Rather, it allows for large scale, unsupervised, and unregulated expansion of charter schools. The problem is pretty straightforward. An alarming amount of them are almost guaranteed to fail.

The Network for Public Education published a report in 2019 that found that over 35% of funded charter schools don’t come to fruition. Of 5,000 schools that were funded through the federal Charter School Program (CSP) over 500 never opened. Those same schools still received nearly $50M in federal funding. In simple terms, 500 schools blew through over $45M of taxpayer money without opening their doors.

That same year, the trade publication Education Week identified just under 1,000 high schools that had graduation rates of under 50% and nearly a quarter of those were all charter schools. That number may be low, because some charter schools (due to privacy issues) were excluded. A researcher at John Hopkins, reacting to these alarming statistics, states it pretty simply: “If kids go to a charter high school where the norm is not to graduate, it’s not delivering the promise of creating better, more successful school for kids in need.”

Mic drop.

You could spend an entire afternoon digging through the other stories about the grift, waste, cost, and failure of charter schools (and we heartily suggest you do). Another example, a story from Tribune media titled “Millions Wasted on Charter Schools” cited that the state of Kansas blew $8.9M of federal charter grants and of those 29 institutions, 22 (or 76%) either closed immediately or never opened in the first place.

On this week’s podcast there was discussion about the states being a laboratory for democracy. In this case, the lab results are already in and they are not good. Missouri schools, students, and educators are being set up to be yet another test subject for an experiment in public education with some consistent and galling results. It is an experiment that Missourians don’t need, especially while public school funding is slashed year in and year out by the GOP supermajority. Surely the “Show Me” state has already seen enough.

What Can You Do?

  • Call your State Senator and Urge them to Vote a “NO” on SB55

  • Share This Story on your social media platforms

  • Follow Heartland Strong on our platforms and share our updates about this and other alarming developments

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