Keeping the “Public” In Public Schools

Last week, legislators in Jefferson City debated HJR 10, a resolution titled “Educational Freedom”.  This resolution proposes to repeal the prohibition in the Missouri Constitution on the use of public funds for private sectarian schools and to  provide “stipends” to parents who enroll their children in “accredited” religious or private schools.   This resolution, like other similar legislative efforts directed at “educational reform”, reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of public education funding and parental choice.   A  summary of HJR 10 can be found at:  Summary:http://house.mo.gov/print.aspx?info=/bills111/bilsum/intro/sHJR10I.htm, and the full bill can be read at: http://house.mo.gov/billtracking/bills111/biltxt/intro/HJR0010I.htm

Proposals to use public funds to support a parent’s private choice of schools misunderstand the nature of public funding.  Public schools like public parks or public transportation use public funds to support a public need — in the case of public schools the goal is providing all children with an opportunity to get some basic level of education.  Public funds are made available to public schools because of the public benefit to the State of ensuring an educated work force and citizenry.   Using public school funds to provide stipends that support private school choices is analogous to using a portion of public park funds to support an individual preference for a country club membership, or using public transit funds to provide stipends for individuals to purchase their car of choice.  Assigning funds for such purposes would be a misuse of public funds because it diverts those funds from the intended public purpose.

Legislative proposals like HJR 10 also aren’t needed to ensure “educational freedom”.  Parents today already have the right to choose a religious or private school for their children, or even to home school their children.  No one is forced to use public schools, just like no one is forced to use public parks or public transportation.  In each case we retain our “right” to make alternative private choices using our own funds.  What we can’t do is use public funds to support a private choice.

Given that there is also a federal constitutional provision on the separation of church and state it is not clear that, even if passed, the constitutional amendment sought in this HJR 10 would accomplish its stated purpose.  However, efforts to pass such legislation do divert attention from the very serious issue of how we can best use public funds to ensure sound educational opportunities for all students in the State.  Public education is a valuable resource for the State and its people, and one that should be recognized as such, even as we work to improve it. It is important for all of us who support public education to be able to articulate its purpose of public education, and to work to make sure both that that purpose is met, and that public school funds remain available for their intended purpose.

In addition to the fundamental misunderstandings addressed above, the resolution also skirts several critical administrative questions which informed constituents should ask:  Who would decide what schools are “accredited” and thus qualify for a diversion of funds?  Would those schools be required to take any child who offers to pay with a stipend?  Or would they be able to screen those who cannot afford to pay more?   Would all religions and denominations be treated equally in the accreditation process or have equal access to the “grants” of state property that are also provided for?  Would those who object to the religious creeds of of particular schools be able to “withhold” their tax dollars from being used for such purposes?  How would public school systems budget when faced with the potential loss of funds?  To what extent would the private or religious schools be accountable for meeting minimal state standards for both safety and educational quality?   As written, HJR 10 would apply to the use of local as well as state funds which raises the question, what  power does the state have to redirect local government funds raised for the benefit of local schools to private and religious schools outside of that community? How much more might the state and local communities need to appropriate to fund both private choice and an effective public education system if the “public funds for private choices” approach prevailed?  These kinds of questions must be asked and answered in reviewing any proposal for education reform if we are to ensure that reforms in fact advance the goals of providing a fair educational opportunity to all.

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