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Published in Print: May 3, 2006, as Choice Issue Opens Rift In Missouri

Choice Issue Opens Rift in Missouri

Tax-credit scholarships divide black caucus.

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The debate over a school choice bill in the Missouri legislature has opened a bitter rift among some of the state’s top black elected officials.

Missouri’s recent flare-up also reflects a larger divide among African-Americans over school choice nationwide.

The proposal—a bill that would provide tax credits for donations to scholarship funds that help children pay tuition at private schools—is similar to programs that are growing in popularity in other states. While such plans have also evoked criticism elsewhere, the debate in Missouri has reached what may be new heights of acrimony.

“This is probably one of the few issues that you will see in our times that will not only divide the black caucus but also the Democratic Party and the Republican Party,” Rep. Rodney R. Hubbard, a Democrat and the former vice chairman of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, said last week.

Disagreement over the proposal led to an upheaval in the leadership of the black caucus, a group known for demonstrating a unified front, after the caucus voted 11-3 on April 12 to oust its chairman, Rep. Theodore “Ted” Hoskins, a Democrat and co-sponsor of the tax-credit bill. Later that day, Rep. Hubbard, another tax-credit-bill supporter, stepped down from his leadership post with the caucus in response to the vote.

Caucus members on the other side of the issue argued that the split in the caucus had more to do with the strong-arm tactics used by the bill’s proponents than it did with the issue itself.

One of those members is Rep. Connie LaJoyce Johnson, a Democrat. An opponent of the bill, she summoned Capitol police last month to remove several dozen parents who had come to her office to lobby for the bill. She said Mr. Hoskins, accompanied by Mr. Hubbard, had egged the group on and urged the protesters to push their way into her private office.

“You always have people that advocate for different causes, and they’re often less than friendly,” Ms. Johnson said. “But I’ve been a legislator six years, and I’ve never had to call Capitol police to remove anybody from my office.”

Mr. Hoskins did not return phone calls or e-mail messages for this story. But Mr. Hubbard denies the protesters were as aggressive as Ms. Johnson contends. No arrests were made in the incident.

Expanding Effort

School choice advocates said Missouri’s proposal, which is awaiting a vote by the full House, follows on a growing number of state initiatives across the country. Such programs offer individuals or businesses tax breaks for contributions to private, nonprofit organizations that use the money for scholarships that enable K-12 students to attend private religious and nonreligious schools of their choosing.

The bill calls for a pilot program to provide $40 million in tax breaks to individuals or corporations that donate to the private tax-credit programs.

It would apply to children attending public schools in Kansas City, St. Louis, and Wellston, where most of the state’s most academically troubled schools are located. State officials last year took over the 525-student Wellston district, which adjoins St. Louis, after it failed to gain state accreditation two years in a row.

In all, proponents estimate, the tax-credit program could generate about 5,000 scholarships, worth an average of $5,000 each.

Such programs have been in place—and have been expanding—for five or more years in Arizona, Florida, and Pennsylvania, according to the Alliance for School Choice, a national group based in Phoenix. Similar bills were proposed last year in 36 states, by that group’s count, though most were defeated. The New Hampshire House is expected to vote on a similar proposal this week, according to another national group that promotes school choice, the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation of Indianapolis.

Critics view such measures as a way to make an end run around state constitutional prohibitions against spending public money on private schools. And such initiatives, like most school choice measures, have generated controversy.

“But maybe none quite so heated as in Missouri,” said Brian McGrath, the director of programs for the Friedman Foundation.

Dividing Lines

School choice measures are sometimes particularly divisive in urban African-American communities, which are ground zero for many such efforts.

The divisions often stem from the Republican ties of most groups and sponsors of school choice legislation, and the minority and low-income groups that those programs often target, which tend to be aligned with Democrats.

“Black legislators sometimes see this issue as a Republican kind of issue, where parents don’t see it that way,” said Tola Thompson, a spokesman for the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a national advocacy group based in Washington. “They see it as an opportunity for their kids to escape from a bad education situation.”

But Missouri lawmakers note that the bill is dividing rural and suburban Republicans, as well as Democrats and the black caucus, and is creating unusual political alliances all around. Besides Mr. Hoskins and Mr. Hubbard, the bill’s sponsors include House Speaker Pro Tem Carl Bearden, a conservative Republican from St. Charles. The state’s teachers’ unions and school administrator groups are also united in opposition to the proposal.

Rep. Johnson, who attended Roman Catholic schools as a child growing up in Chicago, said she worries that the scholarship program will divert funding from existing public schools. She is now the vice chairwoman of the caucus. Another Democrat, Rep. John L. Bowman Sr., replaced Mr. Hoskins as the group’s chairman. Despite its leadership vote, the caucus has not yet taken a stand on the school tax-credit issue.

For his part, Mr. Hubbard said he will continue to support the bill as a first step to overcoming problems in the public schools.

“We should educate students now or end up incarcerating them later,” he said. “This pilot program will alleviate some of the pressures the public school systems have to deal with.”

The tax-credit bill has attracted some prominent supporters, including Lt. Gov. Peter D. Kinder, a Republican, and St. Louis Mayor Francis G. Slay, a Democrat.

As of last week, though, advocates were still unsure whether they could muster enough votes for the bill to pass both the House and the Senate before the legislature adjourns on May 12.

PHOTO: Missouri Rep. John L. Bowman Sr., on the House floor, became the new chairman of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus after infighting over a tax-credit-scholarship measure led to a shake-up in the group's leadership.
—Tim Bommel/Missouri House of Representatives

Vol. 25, Issue 34, Pages 1,24

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