Kansas City, MO – Both Democrat for Governor Jay Nixon and Republican Kenny Hulshof would create more Missouri college scholarships. But Republican Hulshof also proposes making scholarships available for students in the troubled Kansas City and St. Louis school districts. Democrat Nixon says these scholarships amount to vouchers that would drain off precious dollars from the districts.
Kenny Hulshof says his answer to failing urban schools is choice. And step one for the Republican would be to encourage the formation of more charter schools in Kansas City and St. Louis.
Charter schools don't charge tuition. But the small number now existing are operating near enrollment capacities. So Hulshof proposes privately funded scholarships to allow students to pay tuition to go to school in other districts or at private schools. He compares his Opportunity Scholarships to Pell Grants for college students.
Hulshof says: "You provide a stipend to a needy student, who then gets to choose where that stipend will be used - public or private. I support the GI bill, which is similar. You know, it's easy to throw around the political term voucher."
Hulshof says there would be no means test - that "needy" refers to the many students he believes are unconstitutionally trapped in underperforming urban districts. "Education is a civil right. There's only one of us in this room that was willing to take on the status quo in this insance and take... whether it's the teachers' unions or... the special interests that want to keep our kids down."
The k-12 scholarships would come from private dollars donated to private organizations in return for tax credits. The campaign wesbite says the scholarships could be used to attend a school of choice or for tutoring. Dave Rowland is an attorney who works for the Show Me Institute, a think tank that advocates school choice. He says the tax credit idea is in response to court decisions that struck down state-financed voucher plans as church-state separation violations. He also says vouchers are a positive influence.
Roland says after 20 years of experience with school choice in Milwaukee and a decade of experience in Florida, "doom and gloom" predictions did not come about and public schools improved when they got this competition.
Some educators disagree with that interpretation of the studies. Criticism have appeared in Education Week, National Review, the National School Boards Association, Educational Policy Analysis Archives, and Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. In summary, they collectively say the positive effects were short-term, not necessarily caused by competition, and turned into performance losses for public schools as the number of transferring students increased. Judy Morgan of the American Federation of Teachers says other studies raise questions about effectiveness for the student who transfers. She says when similar demographic populations are compared, the public schools do as well as private ones at producing progress.
Hulshof's opponent in the governor's race, Democrat Jay Nixon, notes that state funding for public schools is paid on a per-diem per-student basis. Though the Hulshof scholarships would come from private dollars, once a student transferred out of a public school, it would no longer get that student's daily cash allotment.
Nixon says, "With the limited resources that we have, if you begin to bleed off public dollars to private schools, we'll never be able to meet the challenges we have to public education in the state of Missouri, and that's why I'm philosophically opposed to taking those public dollars and moving them to private schools."
Nixon does support tax credits for contributions to create, expand or benefit public school programs. Overall, he's not sure the problems in educating the 5% or so of Missouri school-age kids in Kansas City and St. Louis are that different from those in the state's other schools. Pointing to challenged districts across the state, Nixon proposes they all need better early childhood education programs, an improved health care system so kids come to school ready to learn, more alternative schools to handle discipline and "fit" problems, and programs to show children the value of education to reduce dropout rates.
In additionl both candidates have plans for recruiting more teachers. Hulshof would create job training centers for business and industry in the public schools. Nixon recommends letting motivated high school students earn up to a semester of college credits during their senior year.
KCUR also asked several Kansas City classroom teachers what the state could do to help the district. Their list included: more teachers and smaller classrooms for more individual attention, a more efficient system of referring kids for special education, more authority for teachers to suspend or expel problem students or send them to alternative schools, and tax credits for setting up mentoring programs for kids whose parents can't or won't get involved.