Local Educators Discuss Far-Reaching Missouri Education Bill

According to Bill Hall, there is no part of the omnibus bill that is good for public education.
An omnibus education bill making its way through the Missouri State Senate has caught the attention of local educators who are concerned about its potential effects on local school districts. 
Senate Bill 55 was pre-filed by Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin (R-18) in December. In mid-January, SB55 was combined with bills 23 and 25. The combined proposed bill is set on the Senate’s informal calendar of bills for perfection for February 15.
By definition, an omnibus bill includes multiple prongs. The bill in question seeks to implement a type of voucher system called an Education Scholarship Account (ESA). Literature from the Missouri School Boards’ Association (MSBA) defines an ESA as, “a legislative [process] where donors to a scholarship fund receive a 100% state tax credit (a direct deduction from state taxes owed). Scholarships are then provided to students to leave public school districts and attend private, parochial and home schools...”
According to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, however, the scholarships would be “funded out of the state General Revenue, not the foundation formula.”
Liberty School Board member and MSBA member Shelly Mantel had this to say about about how this piece of the bill can impact Howell County: “The biggest concern is that this is the beginning of expansion of public tax dollars to private schools that are not required to meet the same expectations as public schools. It may only impact larger districts now, but this is a definite stepping stone for expansion to all schools.”
There are very few private schools that could benefit from this program locally, but both Mantel and Bill Hall, Superintendent of R-IV Willow Springs Schools, expressed concern about the homeschool community diverting funds from the public school.
“We are also very concerned about the expansion of homeschool ‘companies’ that will take advantage of people, provide poor products and leave these children poorly educated with zero accountability,” continued Mantel, “MSBA would support these concepts if private industry was held to the same requirement as public education. It is easy to cherry pick the brightest and best and claim great results, but public school must take ALL children no matter how involved they are related to disability or medical frailty.”
Bill Hall echoed concerns about the funds that could be channeled away from the public school system. Though Howell County lacks what may be strictly termed “private schools,” there are parochial schools nearby: Ozarks Christian Academy in West Plains and Neighborhood Christian Schools in Hutton Valley. 
“We have a large homeschooling community,” Hall cautioned, “Those schools are not going to be held to the same standards...It’s about accountability.”
A major piece of the bill is one which would withhold funding from any public school MSHSAA activities that bar homeschool students from participation. As it is, homeschool students who reside in the Willow Springs and Liberty school districts do not have access to sports, band, debate, or any other extracurricular activities offered. This change would seek to penalize that prohibition, effectively encouraging homeschool participation in public school extracurricular activities. 
“That’s not good for the kids,” Hall argued,” There’s no way of having equitability. Our kids are supposed to be academically sufficient.”
Hall indicated that homeschool students are not held to the same standards as public school pupils and are therefore rightly denied participation in large-scale community activities like high school sports. 
“I don’t think public school education is pick-and-choose what you want,” Hall explained.
When SB55 was in committee, homeschool interest groups gave testimony about what this bill could mean for their lives.
“Homeschool families pay taxes…[and homeschool students] are banned from competing in any MSHSAA activity… SB 55 would fix this major problem...,” testified home schooled student Jonah Spieker before the Senate Education Committee on January 19, “Over the course of this year, I have learned a lot about MSHSAA's academic eligibility policy. In order to participate in athletics, there is one academic requirement you must meet. You cannot have more than one F in your grades. Those who oppose this legislation will tell you that they do not know if homeschoolers hold to the eligibility standards, but this argument is inadequate because someone can have all D's and one F and still represent their school. That is not a very high bar to clear, and I do not believe there would be many, if any, problems with homeschoolers upholding these academic standards,” Spieker testified.
His brother, Ezekiel Spieker, also testified. By way of introduction, he listed his classes stating that his rigorous curriculum included, “…Latin, Calculus, Chemistry, American History, Writing, Logic, Philosophy, Shakespeare, Team Policy debate, and Lincoln Douglass debate. I also play the piano. By the end of this year, I will have 25 hours of college credit.”
According to Bill Hall, there is no part of the omnibus bill that is good for public education. He expressed concern about a substantial change to virtual learning standards statewide: MOCAP expansion. This part of the bill would take the school district out of the decision about virtual learners’ participation. As it is now, virtual students must have the district’s permission to participate in virtual learning, and educators have the authority to remove students from virtual learning if it is in the pupil’s best educational interest. 
Another provision is one that would allow for the electoral recall of public school board members, which Hall also opposes. School board members have to make difficult and unpopular decisions, said Hall, and if passed, he thinks this provision would dissuade qualified candidates from serving on school boards due to the threat of midterm removal when they are forced to make tough, yet unpopular, calls. 
What Does our Senator Say?
Here in Howell County, we are part of Missouri Senate District 33, and our newly elected State Senator is Karla Eslinger. Howell County News asked Eslinger about her view of these bills, and she is staunchly opposed.
“I can’t support SBs 55, 23 & 25, an omnibus education bill, in its current form,” said a statement from Eslinger, “This new bill combines many topics ranging from expansion of charter schools and vouchers, to athletic eligibility.  All of these are important policy issues that deserve to be debated on the Senate floor individually. 
Throughout my professional life, which includes 35 years in education, I’ve always tried to improve and do what’s best for our kids. The vast majority of my time spent in education has been in rural school districts, which serve as a point of pride for many of our rural communities.  Undoubtedly, there are areas where public education needs to improve. To accomplish this, we have to find common ground and build around issues that we agree upon. That is exactly what I came to Jefferson City to do, and I look forward to continued conversations on this important topic.”
In a follow up phone interview, Eslinger said that the unwieldy bill has some traction. It has already been through committee, and is on the Senate’s calendar. 
“Because it’s an omnibus, it will be difficult to get it across the line as is,” she explained, “There could be a lot of revisions and changes.”
To Eslinger, this bill does not get at the heart of the problems with education in Missouri. 
“Most of it has to do with the idea that charters are a better way to go,” she said, “I wish that we could look at public education as a whole. I wish we could get to where every child in our state has access to high quality programs instead of pulling resources apart. There’s a root cause.”
As a parting thought, Eslinger expressed gratitude and approbation for Missouri educators at this unprecedented time. 
“Right now our teachers and educators are getting beat up so much,” she said, “but I am proud of our school districts. To our educators: thank you so much, and I’m proud of you.”
By the publication date, this bill may have appeared on the Senate’s calendar and may have undergone significant changes. Interested readers may continue to track this legislation’s progress at legiscan.com/MO/bill/SB55/2021.

Howell County News

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Willow Springs, MO 65793

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