Bellwether State Ponders School Choice

Missouri state legislators, especially those affiliated with the Democratic Party, face a difficult decision. Soon they will consider legislation that would encourage scholarships that students struggling in public schools could use to attend alternative schools of their parents’ choice. So far, the legislation has attracted bipartisan support, despite opposition from the state’s powerful education lobby, a reliable Democratic ally. The struggle to bring school choice to this bellwether state offers a window into the national school-choice debate.

The Missouri legislation would allow up to $40 million in tax credits for individual or corporate contributions to nonprofits that award scholarships to students from low-income families now attending public school in St. Louis , Kansas City, or Wellstone School District . To participate, students must have a grade point average of 2.5 or less. They could use the scholarship funds to attend schools that better meets their needs.

School choice opponents are out in full force, campaigning across the state to defeat the legislation. "This is the beginning of the end of public education as we know it," said Joe Wanda, Bozeman president of the Missouri Parkway Education Association, a teachers union. Rev. B. T. Rice of the NAACP warned that "If we do nothing, then the worst bill that has ever crossed the state Capital will pass."

The Missouri plan is drawing support from Republican and Democratic state legislators as well as from Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican, and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, a Democrat. "I can’t imagine why anyone would be opposed to this," said Jeff Rainford, a spokesman for Mayor Slay. "We are talking about a very limited program for the poor who are trapped in poor schools. There is no slippery slope here."

Rep. Ted Hoskins, a Democrat from St. Louis , is the chair of the Missouri General Assembly’s Black Caucus and a sponsor of the legislation. "We have young people who are not being properly prepared in the school system, and they cannot compete," he explained. "Low-income parents don’t have the ability to send their students to schools of their choice."

Tax credits for donations to scholarship programs exist in Arizona , Florida, and Pennsylvania. These programs now help about 60,000 students attend private schools. Despite opponents’ hyperbole, tax credits have not led to the "end of public education as we know it" anywhere. Rather, they provide an additional option to students who aren’t being served by public schools.

The dozens of school choice programs throughout the country should give Missouri citizens an idea of what they can expect if this legislation passes.

School choice increases parental satisfaction. A 2003 U.S. Department of Education report studied trends in school choice and found that parents exercising choice "were more likely to say they were very satisfied with their children’s schools, teachers, academic standards, and order and discipline than parents whose children attended public, assigned schools."

School choice also boosts academic achievement for participating children. Eight "random-experiment" studies of the effect of school vouchers have compared the test scores of participating students with those of public school students. All of these studies found that children in the choice programs improved academically. Not a single study found that participating children did worse that their public-school counterparts.

Research even suggests that school choice leads to improvement in public schools. Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby studied the effects of Milwaukee’s voucher program and found that it spurred public schools threatened by the competition to improve their performance.

Backers and opponents of the Missouri legislation agree that the vote is too close to call. One positive sign is that it has drawn strong support from Democrats like Rep. Hoskins.

Historically, Democrats opposed school choice initiatives, but a growing number of them, many whose constituents are trapped in the nation’s worst public schools, are reconsidering. Democratic state legislators are sponsoring similar legislation in New Jersey and Maryland. In Ohio, State Rep. Dixie Allen, a Democrat, is backing a measure to expand the state’s school voucher program. And with the support of several prominent Democrats, Wisconsin lawmakers recently expanded the Milwaukee school voucher program by 50 percent.

In presidential elections, Missouri is a bellwether, correctly picking 26 out of the last 27 victors. A bipartisan victory for school choice here could signal a growing trend. That would be good news not just for Missouri families but for families across the country.