Cape school officials oppose voucher plan

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Cape Girardeau school board members and state Rep. Nathan Cooper disagree over a legislative plan to implement a voucher system in three Missouri school districts in an effort to better educate at-risk, low-income students.

Cooper, R-Cape Girardeau, supports the plan, which would provide $5,000 scholarships to make it financially feasible for some students in the St. Louis, Kansas City and Wellston school districts to transfer to private or other public schools.

But local school board members worry the proposal ultimately could be expanded to other districts with schools that aren't meeting the academic standards set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The district's Jefferson and Blanchard schools didn't make adequate yearly progress in test scores for the second consecutive year, which has triggered a provision in the federal law allowing transfers to other schools in the district.

School vouchers have become an issue in school districts nationwide, board members say.

"This is possibly a foot in the door," said Cape Girardeau school board member Steven Trautwein.

"It would be far less difficult to sell," said Trautwein.

Board members also argue it takes tax money away from the targeted school districts and does nothing to improve those school systems.

Cooper serves on a special committee of the Missouri House that's looking at the "school choice" issue in an effort to craft legislation for the 2007 session.

The committee, appointed by House Speaker Rod Jetton, has begun holding hearings around the state. It's scheduled to hold hearings in Cape Girardeau on Oct. 18 and 19. The times and location haven't been finalized yet.

The committee hopes to submit its recommendations to Jetton by the end of November, Cooper said

Education groups around the state oppose the voucher plan. Similar plans have been proposed unsuccessfully in the legislature in the past two years.

Such legislation made it out of committee last session but never received a vote before the full House, Cooper said.

Under the plan, an estimated $40 million annually in public and private money would be spent on scholarships so students can transfer to other, better performing schools.

At $5,000 per scholarship, such a plan could serve a maximum of 8,000 students in those three school districts combined, Cooper said.

Proponents want $20 million of the funding to come from private donations. The plan would provide state tax credits to encourage such donations.

The public share would come from the state, including part of the per-student funding that otherwise would go to the failing school district.

At-risk students would have priority in receiving the scholarships, Cooper said.

The Republican lawmaker believes the legislature needs to look at the voucher system to address school districts that have failed to adequately educate students.

"Over the last generation, schools in Kansas City and St. Louis have not been performing to the standards set by the state," he said.

Those schools have failed the students, he said, and the results are high dropout rates, poor test scores and a continual cycle of poverty.

"This is not a careless reaction. This is an attempt to find a solution to an issue that has been plaguing the state of Missouri for a very long time," Cooper said.

"It is not fair to those students and those parents in those communities that the schools continue to provide a substandard product."

Ultimately, he said, it would be less costly to implement the scholarship plan than to continue spending a lot of tax money dealing with the social costs of poverty and crime.

But Cape Girardeau school board members said the plan won't improve the failing school districts. It also won't help the majority of students in those districts, board members said.

It's wrong to think that private schools as a whole educate students any better than public schools, Trautwein said, citing a U.S. Department of Education study released this summer.

Trautwein and board member Charles Bertrand argue the state would be better served to have the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education take over operation of failing school districts rather than implement a voucher system.

"I don't think they've put the emphasis on fixing it other than giving them money," Bertrand said.

If lawmakers approve a voucher system for some school districts, parents in other school districts with schools not making adequate yearly progress will want the same opportunity, he said.

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