Ending ‘Us vs. Them’ in Education
This past Tuesday the Missouri Senate spent more than 12 hours debating an education reform bill before setting the legislation aside at 2 a.m. It did not surprise me that we didn’t reach an agreement. This is my ninth year in the General Assembly and education reform has been a heated topic every single year. I’m sure the Legislature argued about schools before I came to Jefferson City and I suspect the debates will continue, even if we pass a bill this year.
The particular legislation we discussed this week, Senate Bill 55, includes several provisions important to parents who want, or need, a greater level of choice for their children’s education. The bill creates tax credits for education savings accounts (ESA) used to pay tuition to private schools for children with an Individualized Education Program and that are underprivileged. It also would allow for charter schools in more areas than Missouri law currently provides. Both of these measures have long been priorities for parents whose children are stuck in failing schools. These same proposals have also raised the ire of public school advocates for just as long. It’s no wonder we debate these proposals year after year.
As a sixth-generation native of southeast Missouri who attended public school myself, and has been involved as my children and grandchildren attended, and attend, public schools, I understand what a strong public school means to a community – especially in rural areas. The local school is the lifeblood of every small town. I get it. But I also understand that not everyone in Missouri is blessed with a great public school. There are places in Missouri where the local schools are failing. You can log onto the website of Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and see scores for every school in the state. In many areas of Missouri children graduate high school without being able to read. This should be unacceptable to all of us.
The phone calls, emails, texts and social media posts I receive reflect the strong views on both sides of the education issue. I hear all the time from parents who desperately want something better for their children. But I also hear from others who argue passionately for the sanctity of the local public school. It doesn’t have to be an “us vs. them” issue, with public schools on one side and those who want education reform on the other. It needs to be a policy discussion about how to bring the best opportunities to the children of Missouri.
We saw this play out on Tuesday night. We have parents on one side begging for options to be able to send their children to schools that will actually educate their children, and we have the public school folks on the other side saying NO. The public school lobby feels that regardless of how narrow a change may be – like only effecting St. Louis or Kansas City schools – that it would end up decreasing overall general revenue, therefore decreasing the foundation formula, and, that any change allowed could end up trickling down to the rural areas at some point in time. There are many problems with the NO side. First, if you are against anything changing the amount of money going into general revenue, for fear of it decreasing the amount coming into the foundation formula, then where were you when we did the tax cut a couple of years ago? Where is your opposition to any and all tax credits that don’t have to do with education? Because if that is the argument, then they would be against ALL items that decrease general revenue. But they aren’t. In nine years, I’ve yet to hear the public education lobby be against anything other than any and all tweaks to the current system. We cannot have children graduating in Missouri that cannot read and/or multiply – and then argue that no changes need to be made to the current system.
Another side of this coin is public school funding. We have increased funding for public education each year for several years now, however, our rural schools have suffered for years with underfunded transportation programs. I, along with some of the other rural senators, have been working to get dollars locked in for our transportation needs, as we consider the tax credits for ESAs. That’s just one example of a push-and-pull effort to come together, as we try to find a compromise that works for an urban area, but also works for us. A compromise that would afford a child an education that currently isn’t getting one, while allowing our rural areas to fund an area that has been problematic in their budget for years.
If we’re going to solve the education problems in this state and address the very real concerns of parents, we need to step back, take a deep breath and realize that the goal is to educate children. I hope that’s something we can all agree on. There will probably never be a charter school in many areas of my district – there simply aren’t enough children in rural areas to make alternative schools viable. But I’m not going to deny families in poorly served urban school districts that option, if it could help their children get an education. Please also keep in mind that these bills moving through the House and Senate are not complete. There are many of us working on them as I write this column.
I will fight hard to make sure the performing schools in my district are not harmed. I’m going to make sure they get the funding they need, and I’m going to work to cut regulations and provide teachers the freedom to try new things and deliver better education for our students. But, as a senator, I have to think in terms of the entire state. I’m not going to stick my head in the sand and say it’s OK that children are graduating who can’t read. I’m not going to ignore the fact that we have children right now across Missouri that are not having in-seat classes. Those things matter, and I’m not going to turn a blind eye to them. It is not who I am.
We have great schools in southeast Missouri, but there are other areas of the state that do not. We should want those children afforded the same opportunities that we have. And shame on us if we don’t.
I always appreciate hearing your comments, opinions and concerns. Please feel free to contact me in Jefferson City at (573) 751-2459. You may write me at Holly Rehder, Missouri Senate, State Capitol, Rm 433, Jefferson City, MO 65101, send an email to Holly.Rehder@senate.mo.gov or visit www.senate.mo.gov/Rehder.