School Choice is not only a hot-button topic; it’s quickly becoming a new reality for millions of American school children. In some states, it means letting students take public money to fund their private school education. Or it means letting families choose which public schools their children attend, regardless of where they live. Today, we’re off to a lead state in the school choice debate, Missouri, as we take stock of the latest education trends sweeping the country.
The following is a transcript of a report from “Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson.” Watch the video by clicking the link at the end of the page.
A teacher and mom, Becki Uccello is both an observer and a participant in Missouri’s school choice movement.
Becki Uccello: I think a lot of parents are looking for just better educational opportunities for their students. The public school system — it’s an institutional system. And one size does not fit all.
Under Missouri’s school choice initiatives, Uccello’s special-needs daughter, Isabella, age 14, gets scholarship money to attend a private, religious school.
Sharyl: What is the number one complaint, would you say, of an average parent in the school system today? Why they’re looking for something else?
Becki Uccello: Whether it’s curriculum or discipline or supporting behavioral issues, there is a critical need for reform. As a teacher, I was hoping that Covid would give us a chance to take a step back and reevaluate. And once we went back to school, it was business as usual, because it takes a lot of energy and effort to make changes in education. And there are a lot of people that don’t want to do the work for it.
Sharyl (on-camera): With Covid-19 restrictions and shutdowns, family frustrations boiled over. By early 2023, at least 42 states including Missouri had proposed some form of taxpayer-funded school choice.
One of the most sweeping school reform initiatives was signed earlier this year in Arkansas under Republican Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders (March 8): With new education freedom accounts, parents will be able to send their kids to whatever school works best. Whether it is private, public, parochial, or homeschool.
Nine states, including Arkansas, have passed universal school choice laws in just the past two years, meaning students can qualify to spend some government school money to attend private school, regardless of family income.
Doug Hayter: Missouri mirrors a lot what we see nationally.
Doug Hayter heads up Missouri’s Association of School Administrators.
Sharyl: How would you characterize, among all the states that are considering proposals, what’s happening here in Missouri?
Hayter: Several key things which are similar to what you see across the country. This last legislative session, there was an open enrollment bill that was debated, was not passed.
Sharyl: Are parents making their voices heard in a stronger way in the past couple of years than you had seen in the previous four or five years?
Hayter: Oh, I think definitely so. Post-Covid, we’ve seen, and even generally in politics, we’ve seen a polarization, I believe on both ends. The one thing to keep in mind is sometimes the loudest voice is not the voice of the majority, and making sure that we fully understand what a community wants and why.
Missouri has been at the forefront of the school choice debate for 25 years. Earlier this year, under a Republican-dominated state legislature, open enrollment had been considered a sure bet. But the proposals stalled and ultimately failed.
Republican Caleb Rowden is Missouri’s Senate President.
Sharyl: Can you simply define what open enrollment is?
Caleb Rowden: Oh, basically just is if you don’t like what you’re getting in your district, you can go over to a neighboring district.
Sharyl: Is it accurate to say open enrollment is really the biggest, latest discussion here?
Caleb Rowden: It was the big one this year. Teachers unions want to protect their fiefdoms. They want to protect this, you know, bureaucracy that they’ve built over the course of time. And they do that, I think, at the expense of giving parents and kids choices.
But opposition to open enrollment in Missouri came from more than just teachers unions.
Maggie Nurrenbern: I’ve really been happy to see coalitions build to stop this school choice train that we’ve seen across Missouri and across the nation.
Democrat Maggie Nurrenbern, a Missouri state representative, is a mother of three and a former teacher.
Nurrenbern: What happened in Missouri is that we saw a tremendous pushback, especially from our rural school districts. So if we have open enrollment, and these small school districts have fewer students in them, they receive fewer resources, they’re not gonna be able to keep their doors open. In small communities in Missouri, the largest employer is the school district. It is the gathering hub, it’s the facility that everybody meets, because it’s the one spot that can accommodate the town. And so, rural communities were very resistant of the open enrollment choice.
While rural schools worry about losing students, successful school systems worry about attracting too many under an open enrollment model.
Just outside of Kansas City, sought-after schools in Independence, Missouri finally got enough money to eliminate all school trailers or portables. School Superintendent Dale Herl.
Dale Herl: With open enrollment, that could open it up where now we have an influx of kids where our local patrons who are paying their local tax dollars to ensure an education for kids that live here — well now those tax dollars are being paid for, to educate kids who don’t live within our boundaries.
Sharyl: And you could theoretically be back in a position of having to make mobile classrooms again?
Herl: Oh, I think that would be a very distinct reality that we would have kids that want to move and be educated within Independence, and we don’t have the space, so then we’re having to put mobile trailers up again. And that honestly does not set very well with your local patrons who are paying the higher tax burden so that we don’t have mobile trailers.
State Senator Rowden says there were open enrollment proposals that addressed the concern.
Rowden: You know there were clauses in there that the accepting district has to opt into the program. You know, they have to have room to take the kid.
The discussion is about to heat up once again as Missouri prepares to consider bills for its next legislative session. Some Democrats and Republicans are working together to move forward the popular idea of education reform, but without some of the perceived wrinkles.
Nurrenbern: I’m partnering with Republicans across the state to come to consensus on different pieces of legislation that we can either co-sponsor or file companion bills.
After 25 years, Uccello decided to retire from teaching public students, and now teaches at her daughter’s private school.
Uccello: I think for me, I was tired of fighting a system that wasn’t interested in changing. So families like ours, we don’t have time to wait for reform. We want to put our children in the best educational environment now.
Sharyl (on-camera): Numerous school voucher and open enrollment bills are expected in Missouri’s upcoming legislative session that begins in January.
Watch cover story here.