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Will pandemic build momentum for school choice?

Across the nation, legislators are optimistic that the ongoing pandemic will provide the impetus to finally pass school choice legislation.

That’s also true for Missouri where legislative leaders have spent the last decade vowing to pass significant school choice legislation. Yet despite massive GOP majorities in both the House and the Senate, they often fall short. Since the expansion of charter schools into unaccredited districts in 2012, attempts to push through education reform have crashed into a wall of resistance year after year.

Now the top Republicans in both the Missouri House and Senate have once again declared school choice a top priority, fast-tracking bills that would expand charter schools statewide and establish scholarship accounts that could be used toward things such private school tuition.

Opposition remains steadfast, but both sides of the debate agree that the impact of COVID-19 on education shook up the dynamic and exposed issues in the nation’s public education system.

“I am tired of wiping tears from my babies’ faces as they struggle to learn in this environment,” Lindi Williford, who has three daughters in the Wentzville School District, said at a Senate committee hearing late last month. “It’s not working for my family. We have to have more options.”

Yet the bills face criticism that they lack accountability standards and will ultimately only pull resources from already-struggling public schools.

READ: How school choice has helped our family

“Now’s not the time to be considering legislation that is hostile to our schools whenever we’re trying to come out of a pandemic and evaluate where we are and move forward to improve public education for our kids,” said Brent Ghan, deputy executive director of the Missouri School Boards’ Association.

Peter Franzen, associate executive director of the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, has been advocating for school choice measures with the organization for nearly 10 years. “Sometimes it does feel like you’re just chopping the same log,” he said, “and never quite chopping it all the way through.”

There were times when education could feel like an “out of sight, out of mind” issue for parents. But the pandemic has been a crystallizing moment that has put education at the forefront for many families, Franzen said.

“So suddenly, every parent in Missouri is acutely aware of how their kids learn,” he said, “how their schools deal with families when there’s a crisis.”

–Alan Goforth | Metro Voice