JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri House members found their chamber surrounded by demonstrators Tuesday morning protesting what they called voucher system for Missouri's inner-city school students.
The proposal would provide tax credits donations to scholarships for selected students in the St. Louis City, Kansas City and Wellston school districts that are facing state accreditation problems.
The scholarships could be used for private or parochial schools.
"The problem is private schools are private, they intend to keep people out," said Scott Ciafullo, president of Missouri Federation of Teachers and School Related Personnel which helped organize the protest.
But the bill's sponsor -- House Speaker Pro Tem Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles, said the urban schools have failed. "St. Louis City School District still fails to graduate 42 percent of the kids," Bearden said. "It's shame on us if we're unwilling to take steps to try to fix that."
The bill which has a cap of $40 million, would allocate that money to a scholarship fund for children with 2.5 GPA and from lower-income families. The scholarships could then be used by the students to pay for private or parochial schools.
Ciafullo said only 8,000 students would be eligible for the scholarships that would average about $5,000 per student. "If we're talking about kids in the city this isn't going to help."
A teacher in Kansas City for 18 years, Ciafullo now runs his organization fulltime. He had a message for Bearden.
"Let's have an honest dialogue of what would improve the Kansas City, the St. Louis and the Wellston school districts to make them the best school districts in the state instead of trying to dismantle them."
Bearden said that the protestors were just acting on what opponents of the bill had told them.
"They didn't have information on the bill; they had talking points," he said.
"They were misguided that it was a voucher bill; there's no public money in this bill, that's just tip of the iceberg," Bearden added.
Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia disagreed.
"We call it the voucher bill and it should not be named anything else but the voucher bill," Baker said.
She said that even after getting the scholarship students would have to pay the rest of their tuition, so in the end it would only impact students that could afford private schools.
"When we talk about education we are talking about distractions and gimmicks. What we need to do is to get into what are our real problems and to come together as a community and to try and solve the problems."
J.C Headly, president of the Columbia Board of Education, said that the Columbia School District had already passed a resolution in their last meeting opposing the bill and asked their representatives to oppose it as well.
"I oppose it personally because our constitution says that public funds should not be used to support organizations such as that," he added. "The other reason is that it takes $40 million out of state revenue which could be used to provide support for public schools."
"We are not using public funds, we're using donated funds from other people," he said. "The same language that basically exists in our constitution exists in the Arizona constitution and their Supreme Court found that it is not the use of public money."
Bearden argued that the money never goes into the public funds and never goes into the public treasury. He said that if the money was not used in this way people and corporations would find other forms of tax deduction to give their money to.
"There has been no proof that moving children to private institutions increases their achievements." Baker said. "That brings up another issue; there's no provision in the bill to check up on students achievements or check up on the schools achievements."
Bearden says that he there is research to back his bill.
"There are a number of studies from Harvard and Cornell and Princeton and others that clearly indicate that students who participate in school choice and scholarships do in fact do better," he said "but not only those kids but kids who actually stay in the public schools which were subject to those scholarships."
Steve Calloway, president of Columbia Parent's for Public Schools and a candidate running for the Columbia School Board said that he met representatives of People for Public Schools when they passed through Columbia to protest the bill on March 21.
He said that his organization generally opposed voucher, and in this case the bill didn't really affect Columbia since public schools in Columbia were in good standard in his opinion.
"I don't think the need is here for alternatives to the public schools that aren't available to folks," Calloway said.
Headley agrees with Calloway's assessment.
"(The bill) applies to Columbia only to the extent that it takes money away from the state which could be used to provide Columbia with state aid," he said. "We get about a third of our budget for the Columbia Schools from the state and if this bill is going to take $40 million out of the state revenue that says that that's $40 million that can't be used to support public schools."
Baker said that the biggest losers of the bill were the schools that she said would be left behind because of their performance.
"The biggest proponent of this bill is a group called All Children Matter. They are from out of state and they have funneled a lot of money into races in this state in order to pass this legislation," she said. "We are being told essentially that people from out-of-state know how to better educate our children than we ourselves know how to do."
Bearden said that the agenda for the opponents of the bill is to protect the system and maintain the status quo.
"Their only solution is to send more money to these failing school districts," he said. "We spent over $2 billion in these two districts over the last 10-15 years; we still have nothing to show for it."
From the list of co-sponsors, there are at least 22 other representatives who support Bearden's bill. Two off them are Rep. Hoskins, D-St.Louis, and Rep. Hubbard, D-Kansas City, representatives from districts that the bill would affect the most.