Public hearing planned on student aid proposal

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

A special committee of the Missouri House will hold a hearing Oct. 18.

Proponents and opponents of a legislative plan to aid students in the failing St. Louis, Kansas City and Wellston school districts disagree over whether it involves scholarships or vouchers, and even whether it's constitutional.

State Rep. Nathan Cooper, R-Cape Girardeau, a strong proponent of the plan, says it isn't a voucher system. But Brent Ghan, spokesman for the Missouri School Boards' Association, disagrees.

That debate likely will continue to play out at a public hearing in Cape Girardeau scheduled by a special committee of the Missouri House that is looking to craft "school choice" legislation for the 2007 session.

The hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Oct. 18 at Glenn Auditorium in Dempster Hall on the Southeast Missouri State University campus. Cooper, who serves on the House committee, said the hearing is scheduled to last until 5 p.m.

The hearing is being held to obtain public input from educators and others regarding the proposal.

Cooper said a voucher system provides state tax money to students to attend the school of their choice.

The scholarship plan, he said, would be funded with private money. Cooper had said at a recent meeting with Cape Girardeau school board members that it would involve public and private funding.

But Cooper now says that isn't the case.

Cooper said the scholarship plan would make it financially feasible for students to enroll in private schools or another public school outside of the district in which they reside.

"The private money is going to provide an opportunity for kids to get out of a failing school," he said.

But Ghan said the plan indirectly involves state aid because 100 percent tax credits would be given those who donate to the scholarship fund.

"The tax credits could amount up to $40 million," he said. "That is $40 million less in state revenue than the state would have received."

The result would be less state tax money for public school districts in Missouri, Ghan said.

"The distinction between this proposal and a voucher system is pretty meaningless," he said when reached by phone at his Columbia, Mo., office. "I think clearly there is public money involved."

Said Ghan, "The fundamental problem is this is an indirect public subsidy of private schools."

He said that goes against the state constitution, which bars the funding of parochial schools with public money.

"We think it ultimately will have to be tested in court," Ghan said.

But Cooper contends it's legal.

Constitutional question

The Missouri constitution says no state funds can be spent directly or indirectly for religious or parochial schools, he said. But tax credits for private donations doesn't violate the constitution, Cooper said.

"It is private money going for a private cause and the fact that individuals or companies are getting something out of it does not make a difference," he said.

Cooper said the tax credits wouldn't significantly cut into state revenue. Most donors, he said, would simply switch from one of the state's other tax credit programs to this one.

At $5,000 per scholarship, the plan could serve a maximum of 8,000 students annually in the three school districts combined, proponents say.

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

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