Education funding has been a contentious topic in Missouri’s Capitol for years. Lawmakers who call themselves “pro-school choice” think public school money should be spent in ways that allow families to choose the best schools for their children. Opponents say their remedies would harm school districts. Now, proposed Missouri education bills may bring the long-standing conflict to a head.

In March, the Missouri House advanced two bills that would alter funding mechanisms associated with the state’s schools. The Senate is set to take up the bills as soon as this week. 

One bill, HB 1552, would update the funding model that dictates how much school districts must give to charter schools within their jurisdiction. Another bill, HB 1814, would allow students whose families pay a certain amount in taxes to attend any school district of their choosing. 

Both bills loom large for the Kansas City region, where charter schools are plentiful and school districts tend to be compact and their boundaries easily crossed.

Charter school funding under critique

Almost from the opening of Missouri’s first charter schools in 1999, advocates have contended their schools were being shortchanged in funding.

Currently, school districts pay charters a rate per student based on a formula that takes into account taxes for the area, attendance rates and state and local allocations. 

According to data from 2021, Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS)  and the district’s combined charter school group had almost equal enrollment rates, at around 15,000 students each. For all grades, there are 34 charter schools within the Kansas City area, and 31 district-led schools. 

New proposals would adjust the funding mechanism used to calculate how much school districts owe the charter schools within their borders. The Missouri Charter Public School Association says the updated funding model would fix a “glitch” that uses a 2005 tax rate to determine money owed for each student.

“Now we’re in 2022. And as personal property values have increased, charter schools are still receiving based on a 2005 rate,” Douglas Thaman, the executive director of the association, told The Beacon. 

He said the outdated charter funding model leaves a major equity gap between what a student in a district-led public school would receive versus a student in a charter school. 

“The gap has grown over time, partly because property tax values continue to increase and also because prices go up and taxes increase,” Thaman added. “In Kansas City right now, it’s about $1,700 per student per year. And then in St. Louis, it’s even higher, it’s $2,500 per student per year.” 

Opponents argue that charter schools aren’t held to the same standards by the state – so they shouldn’t necessarily get the same resources as public school districts receive per student. 

“Our opposition starts in basically two places,” said Mark Jones, the communications director for the Missouri chapter of the National Education Association. “Charters don’t have the same obligations as public schools, to do things like provide transportation, or support students with special needs.”

Those are factors the state needs to consider, he said.

“And so to act as if charter schools should receive the exact same distribution of funds when they are not required to help kids with special needs, or not required to make sure students actually are able to physically get to the school … we think is an important distinction about how funds should be distributed.” 

When a similar bill was proposed last session, KCPS said the change would cause it to owe $10 million to $12 million to charter schools, in addition to what the district already pays. The fiscal note for this year’s education bill puts that estimation at $8.2 million, based on the average daily attendance in both charter and public schools in 2021. (An amendment delayed the start date for the funding change for St. Louis Public Schools to 2028.)

HB 1552 passed the House 103-48. It could be heard by the Senate Education Committee as soon as this week. 

Should Missouri allow open-enrollment across district borders?

The Senate is also set to take up HB 1814, which would allow parents to send up to four children to a school district that they do not live in without a tuition payment. The bill passed out of the House, 85-66. 

According to the bill’s summary, the goal is to improve instruction, increase parental involvement  and “offer the opportunity to align parental curriculum options to personal beliefs.” The bill would restrict the number of students who can transfer to 5% until 2025. 

Currently, schools are funded with both state and local aid, along with some federal dollars funneled through states. Under the education bill, open-enrollment transfer students would carry federal and state aid with them, while the local dollars that would have been allocated to that student would stay in the district that they live in. 

“It does pit districts against each other. There are people that say competition is good. But all of our school districts operate differently based upon what their communities have,” said Kenny Southwick, the executive director of the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City, which represents 32 area school districts.

“The local communities place their dollars where they have points of emphasis — working through their school board, through their community, with their administration,” he said. 

Priorities for school districts at any given moment vary widely, Southwick said. Some school districts choose to focus on technology. Others may choose to emphasize a robotics program or make a push for new facilities. 

“So that gets to the local control issue,” he added. 

The bill does not cover the transportation costs for all students who would transfer to other districts. But it would create a $60 million “Parent Public School Choice Fund,” which would assist with transportation costs for students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals. The fund would also reimburse school districts for special needs education. 

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said in the fiscal note that it cannot predict the bill’s cost, because it has “no idea” of the number of students or districts that would participate in the program.

After a similar bill was introduced in 2021, KCPS estimated that it would lose about $9,000 per student in revenue in local and state funds. Springfield Public Schools estimated at the same time that the proposal would cost it $150,000 annually. 

Jones said his teachers union worries that the bill would have “unintended consequences” by exacerbating inequities. 

“Where we have a real problem here is a potential inequity that could exist,” he said.  

The bill does not guarantee transportation for all low-income students, Jones noted. 

“You could really have a two-tiered system here where low-income students … may not be able to take advantage of this system,” he said.

Meanwhile, more affluent families who can provide their own transportation could pick and choose which district they want their children to attend, Jones said. 

“That’s a real concern for us as an organization.” 

HB 1814 is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday. 

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MEG CUNNINGHAM is The Beacon’s Missouri Statehouse reporter. Previously, Meg worked as a national politics reporter for ABC News in Washington, D.C., where she covered campaigns and elections. Meg is...