Special report: KOMU 8 News hits the road to examine school choice

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JEFFERSON CITY - As school choice is talked about more and more in state and national government, Missouri parents wonder what the program could look like once implemented here.

The many school choice systems throughout the country including vouchers, educational savings accounts and scholarships, all have the same goal: choices for parents to choose the education that will be most effective for their children.

Essentially, the programs take the amount of public dollars it would cost to send a child to a public school, and allow that child to use those dollars to attend any school, whether that be a private school, a charter school, a traditional school or any kind of religious school.

Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, said Senate Bill 32 is not quite a voucher program.

"It operates very similarly," he said. "Except that it doesn't use public funds for the scholarships. The scholarships are funded with tax credits." 

If SB 32 passes, the scholarships would be available to any student in the state.

Advocates of school choice said they are almost certain the program would only benefit Missouri students, but can't be sure until it is put into action.

KOMU 8 News traveled to Evansville, Indiana, where school vouchers have been an option for almost a decade, to see how schools there - both private and public - have been impacted by school choice.

School choice in action

Daryl Hagan, the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Evansville, said, "The program's benefits have been overwhelming."

More than 2,000 students within the 26 Catholic schools in the Diocese of Evansville take advantage of school vouchers. 

Hagan said school choice allows his students to be formed further in the values their families choose to uphold.

"Parents should put their children in the school that equates with their family values, that reflects the family values that they want for their family, and that's why it's important for families to have a choice, so that everyone, not just the wealthy, can make that call," he said.

Hagan said it's true for students in other private schools, both religious and non-religious, in Evansville.

David Smith, superintendent of the public schools in Evansville, agrees families should be able to choose where their children are educated, but he does not see school choice as the answer. 

"I think that, on the surface, the idea makes a lot of sense, but frankly its called school choice for a reason, and it's the schools choosing, not the parents choosing," Smith said. "Schools are choosing, private schools are choosing which students they want to serve. To suggest that any student can go to any private school that they want certainly is not the case."

Smith said he worries private schools are choosing to admit only students with great academic potential, leaving the public schools to take care of special needs students and those who are more difficult and more expensive to educate.

"So then you have an increasingly larger population in public schools of expensive students to educate and a dwindling pot of money," he said. "As you take funding out of public schools and fund actually now another new enterprise, one where the schools get to pick the students, then it probably fundamentally weakens public education."

Smith said the beneficiaries seem to be students and families who were already paying to attend private schools.

"Really what we've seen is the largest percentage of students accessing vouchers are students that were already in private schools. That was never the intent of vouchers when it was first sold to the public." 

Hagan said the Catholic diocese isn't seeing any more money than usual, and the schools themselves are not benefiting. 

Separation of church and state

A major concern of the bill's opponents is that it may violate the First Amendment - separation of church and state. 

Emery said SB 32 is within the guidelines of Missouri's constitution, and the students, not religious schools, are reaping the benefits of the public dollars spent.

Neither the public nor the Catholic schools' superintendents in Evansville saw it being an issue. Both said the money is meant for the families to have their children educated the way they see fit, and if that education happens to be a religious one, that is the family's choice.

Hagan said the church is not profiting in anyway and the government is not promoting any particular religion.