$130,000 for lobbying won’t help school district nearing bankruptcy

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

One of two Missouri school districts nearing bankruptcy has committed $130,000 to a lobbying firm, claiming the district needs increased state funding to stay afloat.

The investment in lobbying, however, may not have increased the district’s chances of getting money from the state.

HOW MUCH? A Missouri school district, nearing bankruptcy, spent $130,000 to lobby the state for more money.

“Anyone from the Normandy School Board or the superintendent can knock on my door and say, ‘Can we chat?” state Rep. Mark Parkinson told St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “That’s $130,000 that could go back in their own classrooms to improve the education of their own students.”

Normandy is one of two districts facing bankruptcy, in part because of the state’s public school transfer program.

For the past few years, students assigned to unaccredited districts have had the freedom to attend schools in neighboring districts. The unaccredited district is required to pay tuition — often higher — for its students attending the receiving district.

While this provides students with better school options, it’s a budget strain on the already cash-strapped unaccredited districts. And, receiving districts aren’t always thrilled about taking in these students.

If the state Legislature doesn’t take action — and it might not — the districts could be dissolved and merged with neighboring districts, or become “achievement districts” modeled after Louisiana‘s post-Katrina recovery districts. Several proposals have been floated, said James Shuls, director of education policy at the Show-Me Institute.

Shuls said he believes private school choice would solve the problem. In a slew of a dozen reform bills being passed around the Missouri Legislature is a small, limited voucher program that attorneys at the Institute for Justice say may not be constitutional.

This part of the bill addresses students assigned to unaccredited schools who can’t transfer to accredited schools within their district. Those students could transfer to an accredited school at a neighboring district or a “nonsectarian private school located in the district.”

The unaccredited district still pays tuition for its students, regardless of where they attend.

Excluding faith-based schools from the program could keep the program running under Missouri’s tight constitutional prohibition on state funding for private schools, but could also keep it from passing U.S. constitutional muster.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that states could allow students to attend faith-based schools with publicly funded scholarships, but only if the program itself was neutral to religion and operated on the private choice of parents.

The court ruled later that states were allowed to exclude religious vocational training from publicly funded scholarships. Those scholarships could follow students to faith-based colleges and pay for theology classes, but a state could choose not to fund a student’s training to be in the clergy.

Whether states are permitted to exclude all faith-based schools has not yet been resolved.

“Our position is that it would be unconstitutional for a state to single out religious schools and exclude only religious options from any educational aid program, if the program is otherwise generally available,” said Michael Bindas, senior attorney for the Institute of Justice.

It’s too early to tell whether the voucher portion of the bill will make it through the “political sausage making process,” Shuls said. While the transfer system is in need of reform, it’s a hot topic and the process could easily stall. It’s unlikely that any bill will pass without significant changes, he said.

“The education reformers are going to be pushing for some ideas, and the education establishment will be pushing for their ideas. If they can’t come to an agreement, there’s a good chance that nothing happens,” Bindas said.

Tax-credit scholarships would be a better private school choice option in Missouri, said Dick Komer, senior attorney for the Institute for Justice.

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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