A panel of passionate advocates for publication presented “The Battle to Preserve Public Education in Missouri” at the WCD FOCUS meeting on October 11, 2017. The panel, speaking to a full house at the United Food and Cafeteria Workers Union Hall, consisted of Gary Sharpe, Carl Peterson and Peggy Cochran.
Gary Sharpe is a member of West County Democrats and was a public school teacher and administrator. He served in the Missouri House of Representatives and was the Chair of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee. He is also the past Director of the Missouri Council of School Administrators. Gary introduced the topic, noting that he believes there is a war on public education because of state and federal de-funding. State officials are supporting charter schools with tax credits and vouchers, which competes with public schools. Business taxes are being eliminated which reduces state income. In Missouri a foundation formula is calculates education funding, but legislative leaders have reduced the amount required to fully fund education. Recently public higher education funding has been slashed in real dollars, leading to increased tuition. The latest statistics show that 91% of children attending K-12th grade are enrolled in traditional public schools in the U.S. Teacher salaries in Missouri average $11,000 lower than the national average and in 2010 Missouri ranked 50th in teacher salaries. Missouri currently ranks in the 40th percentile for education.
Carl Peterson, a public school advocate, formerly served two terms on the Ferguson-Florissant School Board. He found that statistics show U.S. students as compared to other countries are in the 25th percentile in science, the 39th percentile in math, and #1 in creativity. There are many challenges for U.S. schools and education which are as follows: curriculum, tracking of student progress, mainstreaming, demographics, and poverty. The U. S. has a wider curriculum, which does not allow students to go deeper into subjects. The international recommendation was for our schools to use Common Core curriculum. One is seven of our students has a disability, yet funding for programs for disabled students is at 16% of the budget. Our students are diverse and many speak a second language at home. there is economic disparity as 22% of our school children is in poverty. The U.S. spends 3.7% of its GDP on education which is slightly below the average for world countries.
What should be done for our schools? Reducing class size should be a priority. Pre-school should be offered to all children. There could be a longer school with less hours in the day. More help needs to be given to special needs children. Social services should be integrated into the schools to help students and families.
Carl believes that statistics show charter schools many times do not out-perform traditional public schools. 40% of the charter schools in Missouri started in the first decade are now closed. 40% of current charter schools are near unaccredited status. Charter schools in St. Louis have only 4% homeless children while St. Louis Public Schools have 23% homeless children. Charter schools have 35% fewer handicapped children and are less resource intensive. Administrative costs for charters are over twice that of public schools. Carl noted that there are faulty studies in support of voucher programs and the success of charter schools.
Peggy Cochran is a lifetime educator and was the past Executive Director of the Missouri National Education Association. She has been involved with the Missouri NEA for over 24 years, having also taught for 21 years. Peggy believes that vouchers are a diversion of public money to private and parochial schools. There are many ways and terms for such diversions: educational savings accounts, tuition tax credits, special needs scholarships, and tax credits. Who benefits from vouchers? She believes that the wealthy and top middle class benefit the most. ALEC is funded by corporate money and has pushed legislation for vouchers. Missouri has had a voucher bill introduced every year which has not passed. However, rural Republicans, who have not been supportive of voucher legislation, are now being targeted by anti-campaigning for pro-voucher groups. However, there is concern for Missouri as Gov. Greitens has said he is in favor of vouchers and another bill will likely be introduced again next year.
Betsy Voss, the current Secretary of Education is in favor of voucher programs. The U.S. Dept. of Education has introduced a $20 billion voucher program. However, Peggy believes the statistics do not show positive results for charter schools. Indiana and Ohio, states which have had voucher programs, found losses in math and reading skills for students. Peggy said that vouchers violate the separation of church and state. Money is funneled away from public schools. Vouchers permit discrimination. Children may forfeit their rights to needed services for disabilities. There is no accountability for charter schools, many are not accredited and there is no requirement to hire certified teachers.
Peggy stated there are ways to improve choices for students in regard to schools. There should be more career options in high schools, Dual enrollment in colleges and advanced course work allows students to succeed. Technology should be updated as well as improvements made in facilities and infrastructure. Focus and magnet schools prove successful. Teacher salaries should be increased. Alleviating poverty should be a priority as the number of students enrolled in the free lunch program increased from 41% to 52% over the past 10 years.