A new way in education reform

July 12, 2013 

In 1993, the State House and Senate worked with Gov. Mel Carnahan to pass an education reform bill named SB380. It had many parts, some good and some not (it also contained one of the largest tax increases in Missouri history). One section of this law stated that if a school district became unaccredited, any student that resides in the unaccredited district can attend any accredited district in the same or an adjoining county.

This concept may not have earned much scrutiny at the time, but it is causing a great deal of concern now as Missouri raises its academic standards and more districts are struggling to remain accredited. The politicians that brought this to us are all long gone, they can’t be held accountable.

Recently Missouri’s Supreme Court has upheld this part of the law to mean just what is says. For those, like us, who reside in high performing districts near unaccredited districts, such as Kansas City, Missouri, this is a real concern. As you are well aware, we pay high taxes and take great pride in our schools. In fact, many of us likely moved to Eastern Jackson County because of the quality of the schools.

In 2012 the General Assembly considered a bill, HB 1740, that would have offered relief to the school districts in Eastern Jackson County from this section of the 1993 law. HB 1740 would have given the accredited receiving districts a great deal of control in determining how many students from unaccredited districts they were going to take. As you might expect, one problem both St. Louis and Kansas City have is that there are more students wanting out of the failed districts than there are empty seats in neighboring accredited districts.

Among several things HB1740 would have done to address the potential overcrowding is create a scholarship tax credit program. This program would allow individuals to donate money to a scholarship organization and then students from unaccredited districts unable to enroll in accredited districts could apply for scholarship funds to attend non-public schools. I supported this because it seemed to me a good way to allow the children and families who have been utterly failed by their public schools for more than 30 years a chance at a decent education without overwhelming neighboring districts.

As a proud member of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, I supported HB1740 in committee. Immediately after the committee vote the “education establishment” went nuclear and began accusing me of being anti-public schools.

It seems that, in their view, anything that allows students to escape, even failed, public schools to attend non-public schools is against public education. It did not matter to the school administrators and school board associations, or the teachers unions that HB 1740 only applied to non-accredited districts who have been failing generations of kids. It also didn’t matter that this change would protect Lee’s Summit, Blue Springs and Independence from overcrowding. And it did not seem to matter to them that HB1740 would actually save the State, and therefore schools, money.

I voted for HB1740 knowing the powerful public school lobby would come after me, but I did it because I have a responsibility to help keep our schools great, and Missouri has a responsibility to give these kids in failing districts a chance at the American dream.

The recent Supreme Court decision brings this debate back to the forefront. Looking forward, a policy measure like HB 1740 would address both of these fundamental responsibilities. I plan on working on solving these issues by discussing this and other potential efforts with constituents during the interim and during the 2014 session. I hope that the education establishment will help us write a change in the law that both protects our schools and ensures all Missouri’s kids have access to the high quality education they deserve.

Rep. Mike Cierpiot is from the 30th District in Lee’s Summit.

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