Missouri voucher bill will hurt public education. Does that help low-income kids?

·3 min read

Just when Kansas City Public Schools seemed ready to reclaim full state accreditation, Missouri lawmakers made reaching that goal harder by passing a bill that will divert students and dollars away from the system.

The bill passed earlier this month will allow a tax credit program to pay for kids in public schools to go to private schools instead. It’s a measure that public school districts here and across the country have been trying to stave off for years.

This latest legislative move in Missouri has been sold as one that will benefit low-income families, but public school leaders fear it’s a step toward the dismantling of public school districts and the privatization of public education.

If that happens, where does that leave the most at-risk students, who are less likely to be welcome in private and some charter schools? Taking money away from public schools makes it harder for them to provide instruction to the students left in their classrooms. Don’t they deserve a good education, too?

The Missouri measure, approved 20-13 by the GOP-led Senate, would create a limited voucher system if signed by Republican Gov. Mike Parson.

Under the bill, private donors would give money to nonprofits that in turn would dole out the scholarships, which is what lawmakers who support the legislation are now calling vouchers.

The money could be used to help parents pay private school tuition, transportation to school and other education-related expenses. And donors would get state tax credits equal to the amount they give.

This bill attempts to sidestep the opposition to school voucher programs that directly give public money to private schools.

But public districts are the losers here. The donors will get their money back in some form, while the school district will lose approximately $10,000 a year in state funding for every child that walks out the door.

Threat to Kansas City Public Schools’ academic progress

Democratic lawmakers have not supported the measure.

Missouri Senate Democratic Leader John Rizzo of Independence says the bill “will drain $75 million away from public schools each year.”

He called the vouchers a “kickback” to families for sending their children to private schools or homeschooling them.

“This bill begins a significant degradation of public education in Missouri,” said Kelly Wachel, spokeswoman for Kansas City Public Schools.

Yaw Oben, superintendent in the Hickman Mills School District, puts it this way: “This is a direct attack on public education. It is a direct attack on our student enrollment and the funding that we receive from the state. And that reduces our ability to provide some of our special programs”

Both Hickman Mills and Kansas City Public Schools have struggled with low student performance and remained only provisionally accredited. Earlier this year, a national urban school group suggested state officials should award KCPS full accreditation because it’s made great progress and is doing better than most urban districts. Losing state dollars would be a big setback.

The Missouri legislation would be limited to students with disabilities on individual education plans and children from low-income families.

The problem with that is that many private schools don’t even have programs for children with disabilities or behavior issues. If the scholarship pays a portion of the private school tuition, would a low-income family really be able to come up with the remaining fees? And if hundreds of children were to get scholarships, are there even enough seats in private classrooms to accommodate such an influx?

Of course parents want the best education for their children. But public money should pay for public education.