Missouri’s 522 public school districts serve 916,205 students and school districts in our state range in size from the largest district that serves more than 25,000 students to the smallest district with only 20 students, according to Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Missouri has 66,800 teachers in K-12 classrooms across the state, and research shows that the teacher is the most significant factor in a student’s learning. Oftentimes when discussing education issues, we overlook the importance of the role that teachers take in the growth, development, and education of our young people.
During our Interim Committee on Education, it was good to hear from numerous teachers, administrators, parents, and other individuals about their concerns on school issues in our state. Some of those subjects were mentioned or discussed in my article last week, but this week I want to briefly address one of the most frequently mentioned topics, transfer students.
While in the St. Charles-St. Louis area, our committee hearings mostly dealt with the topic of transferring students from unaccredited districts into accredited districts. The hearings on transfer students and the state-wide plan for addressing persistently low-achieving or failing school districts drew the largest crowd, with over one hundred people coming and testifying on this issue alone. Following the second hearing, we had four area St. Louis school superintendents—two from accredited districts and two from unaccredited districts—who conducted a roundtable discussion on student transfers and the effects of such on their individual districts. It was encouraging to me to see how well these superintendents were working together to try and solve the difficult issues facing their districts.
While transferring students is a major concern in St. Louis, finding a solution has become a state-wide problem. When one Missouri school district fails, we all fail to some extent, because we are not providing an adequate education for all students of our state as required by Missouri’s constitution. The transfer of students from an unaccredited district to an accredited one has historically proven to be effective.
The purpose behind the school transfer law is to help keep students from becoming trapped in a failing school district. The implementation of this law has created concern that tuition and transportation costs could bankrupt the unaccredited districts and that the transfer of many low-performing students will lead to overcrowding or have a negative impact on the receiving district.
A possible solution that was presented to the interim committee on education was a scholarship tax credit program. This program would involve both individuals and corporations donating to a scholarship-granting organization that would fund the program. In exchange for donations, donors would receive a credit toward their income tax liabilities. The scholarship tax credit program is different from the traditional voucher program that had been presented in years past. Students who receive these scholarships would use them to attend a private school or a participating public school. Currently the unaccredited school districts are obligated to pay both the tuition costs and the transportation costs for students who transfer to a school outside the district. In some cases the cost to the unaccredited district is greater than the cost to actually educate the student in the failing school district. The scholarship program would reduce the financial burden on the existing unaccredited school district because they would not be responsible for the tuition or the transportation costs for transferring students. Under this program the districts would not receive state or federal dollars for the student who was transferred and the district would be able to retain all of its local money. The program would also lessen the burden on the accredited school districts by reducing teacher-student ratios and overcrowding in classrooms, because they would be required to take only those students for which they had room.
Opening private schools was another option mentioned. With private schools, fewer students would be attending the accredited school districts and, essentially, students would be more dispersed among area schools. It was noted that the cost to educate a student in a private school is considerably less than the cost required to educate that student in an accredited public school.
The tax credit scholarship program is presently working in eleven different states. It is particularly interesting to note that Florida has a dollar-to-dollar tax credit student transfer program that is working very effectively by generating savings that far exceed the amount of revenue lost by a tax credit program. Missouri’s proposed scholarship tax credit program would be one with credits received at 75% of the donation. For example, if a donor gave $1,000, he would receive $750 credit toward his tax liability.
Ultimately, this scholarship tax credit program could greatly benefit students who are presently trapped in failing, unaccredited school districts, and this program may help those students about which the state has great concern.