Education officials find fault with Senate Bill 55

Education officials find fault with SB 55
By: 
Dave Faries
Editor

Perhaps the most controversial measure before the state assembly is Senate Bill 55, a massive education package that addresses voucher tax credits, charter school expansion, virtual instruction, school board recall votes and participation in after school activities for home school students.

Within those general topics are dozens of provisions that have been revised as the bill continues to be debated.

“There are so many provisions in the bill, many of which are only remotely related, that it is impossible to support the entire package,” said Keith Louder, a new member of the Mexico School District’s Board of Education.

Like many local educators and administrators, Louder opposes the measure, which was introduced in January as a way to require schools to allow home schooled students to take part in MSHSAA activities.

As the bill moved through committee reviews in February, however, senators tacked on a number of additional provisions, including a contentious rider filed by Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, that would create dollar-for-dollar school choice tax credits, essentially transferring public funds to private schools.

The bill has a $100 million cap for the first year, with annual increases of 10 percent if 90 million of that amount is claimed — a feature that troubles Mexico Superintendent Dr. Tammy Lupardus.

“This increase would carry on in perpetuity until 90 percent of the funds are not utilized,” she said. “This means the program could, and likely would, cost billions of dollars each year.”

Public education took a significant funding hit because of the pandemic. More than $250 million was withheld from the foundation formula and school transportation. Money funneled to education from gaming dried up, amounting to a $78 million shortfall.

In all, almost $395 million destined for the public school system in 2020 was never received. Lupardus said another cut if the voucher program passes might have costly ripple effects.

“This loss of funding could, and likely would, lead to devastating outcomes for public schools – mass layoffs, school closures, etc.,” she explained.

Lupardus points out that the measure could hurt the state budget, and it has flaws that go beyond financial. The bill lacks accountability, she notes, and allows discrimination.

“Any school that receives public funds should be held to the same accountability measures as public schools,” agreed Marci Minor, newly elected to the school board. “SB 55 is taking money away from public school districts and is a detriment for quality education.”

Another aspect of SB 55 — the expansion of virtual education — was added by Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis. It grants more authority to parents and students when enrolling in a virtual program is an option.

Opponents point out that the measure’s vague language also appears to increase the amount of money the virtual provider receives from a school district.

The expansion of charter schools is another aim of the bill, but that measure does not apply to Audrain County. But education officials in the county say the other aspects of SB 55 are riddled with problems.

While the participation of home school students in MSHSAA activities may be the least controversial measure, Lupardus points out that it puts no restrictions on participation.

To take part in sports or activities, public school students must be passing 80 percent of their courses, and attend school on the day of an event, for example. Under the proposed legislation, home school students would not need to meet these requirements.

“These provisions seek to treat two groups of students differently,” Lupardus said.

The option to recall elected officials is another major topic addressed in the bill. It provides that a recall election must be held if a petition is signed by at least 25 percent of those who voted in the most recent election.

Lupardus believes this measure stems from legislators frustrated with the slow return to in-school learning in many districts.

SB 55 remains mired in debate and there is a similar measure on the House side. So despite their criticism, local officials are also uncertain of what will finally emerge from the legislature.

“Senate Bill 44 has had nearly 100 changes since its introduction,” Minor explained. “Word on the street is there will be a newer version of the bill, but we have not yet been told what edits will be made.”

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