ST. CHARLES • The poll numbers up on the screen showed something they couldn’t quite reconcile: While the results suggested most Missourians support using public funds for private schools, efforts to broaden school choice fail each year in the Legislature.
“Nothing is allowed to be reformed,” said Sen. John Lamping, a R-Ladue. “Nothing. There’s no ground given.”
Lamping, speaking Friday on a panel to about 50 people, most of them school choice supporters, at Lindenwood University, referred to the historic disappointment among choice proponents that dates back more than a decade. Year after year, fierce opposition from the public education lobby, coupled with concerns by rural lawmakers, have defeated their efforts to pass a law allowing public funds to be spent on tuition at private schools.
Thirteen different attempts have failed in the House since 2003, said Republican House Speaker Tim Jones, seated beside Lamping. The record in the Senate isn’t much different. The lack of success is why Roman Catholic leaders tried to bypass the Legislature this year. They set out to collect enough signatures to ask voters for tax credit scholarships to benefit private schools — including religious ones — but fell short.
“We don’t have a good track record on this,” said Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, who sits on the panel. “Hopefully we will turn the corner this year.”
Chappelle-Nadal’s optimism is rooted at least partly in the state’s struggles surrounding the school transfer law.
Last summer, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld that law, prompting the transfer of more than 2,200 students from the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts.
As a result, Normandy is expected to run out of money this summer after having to pay more per student in tuition and transportation costs than it receives in revenue. Riverview Gardens may also run out of money next winter if the law remains unchanged.
The situation has served as a jolt to the Legislature, where attempts at fixing the law have died in previous years.
This session, however, fixing the law has become a priority. But the battle over school choice is just as contentious.
On Friday, the three lawmakers were speaking at a panel hosted by the Show-Me Institute, a free-market think tank that’s financially backed by Rex Sinquefield, a billionaire investor who supports school choice.
They saw results of a poll paid for by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, one of the nation’s leading advocates for school vouchers. The poll suggests that Missourians hold more negative views of district schools than of charter or private schools. It also suggests that 67 percent of Missourians support tax credit scholarships that would allow parents to send their children to the school of their choice, whether public or private.
In the audience sat Carl Peterson, who told the crowd about his wife’s struggles to meet the needs of children with behavior issues and special needs as a school teacher in Ferguson-Florissant district. He was skeptical of the poll results.
“It’s how you ask the question,” he said later. “If you ask if are you willing to set up schools that don’t take Down syndrome, that don’t take autism, that don’t take the problem kids, it becomes a different question.”
So Peterson raised his hand.
“Why should we spend tax money on any school that doesn’t take all the kids?” he asked.
“My counter question is this,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “In a community like University City, where half of all children go to private schools, why do their parents have to pay taxes into the public school system?”
Chappelle-Nadal, also a member of the University City School Board, has come to embrace aspects of school choice that she once largely opposed. She herself was a transfer student, she pointed out, having attended Clayton schools as a child living in St. Louis as part of the voluntary desegregation effort.
This winter, Chappelle-Nadal wrote the provision in a Senate bill that would broaden the amount of choice allowed by the school transfer law. It would give children in unaccredited districts the option of transferring into nonreligious private schools within their district, not just higher-performing schools in other districts. Their tuition would be paid by the unaccredited school system.
“What we are seeing by the behavior of families is they want to stay close to home,” she said, referring to the several hundred transfer students who have returned to schools in Normandy and Riverview Gardens. “If they have decided to stay, they should have choices within that district.”
Currently, there are no nonreligious private schools in Normandy district. There’s just one in Riverview Gardens.
The House version of the transfer bill would allow children in failing districts to attend private schools outside their district’s boundaries.
And just as in previous years, the provisions mark the battle lines regarding the transfer legislation this year.
Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has threatened to veto a bill that sends public dollars to private schools. Organizations representing school superintendents and school districts across the state also have voiced opposition.
“I don’t want public dollars subsidizing private schools,” said Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, during floor debate in February. “Where do kids go that have discipline issues that private schools won’t deal with? Public dollars stay in public schools.”
School choice advocates frequently point to Catholic and Lutheran schools as examples of private schools that often spend less per pupil than district schools. But the tuition costs of nonsectarian schools in the St. Louis region often exceed those of `most public schools.
Tuition at Crossroads College Prep School is $19,500. The Forsyth School is $17,400. New City School tops out at $16,800.
According to the Friedman presentation, 9 percent of Missouri school children attend private schools. But according to the organization’s poll results, 32 percent of Missourians would send their children to private schools if they could afford to.
Jones blamed the annual derailment of school choice attempts on the political strength of school superintendents and other public school organizations.
“I’ve gotten beyond being frustrated at this point,” he said.
“How likely is it that anything will get passed?” asked James Shuls of the Show-Me Institute.
There was a pause.
“All attempts will be made to kill the entire transfer bill or that part of it,” Lamping predicted.
Alex Stuckey of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.