Missouri parents came by the busload to the state house to let their representatives know they want school choice.
By Lisa Knepper
On April 14, a remarkable thing happened at the Missouri Capitol. Lawmakers considering school choice legislation heard—loud and clear—from the most important voices in the school choice debate: parents the bill was designed to help.
Chants of “Choice! Choice! Choice!” filled the halls as dozens of parents from impoverished St. Louis neighborhoods walked from office to office, explaining why they need educational options now and can wait no longer for the city’s poorly performing public schools to improve. These parents are tired of being taken for granted by the establishment. As Maxine Johnson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, she hopes school choice will force the public schools to compete for children like hers: “This is a challenge for public schools to come up to par.” The parents voiced support for a proposal to create $40 million in tax credits for donations to private scholarship funds. The funds would provide scholarships for low-income, low-achieving students trapped in the state’s worst school districts, St. Louis, Kansas City and Wellston, to attend private or public schools.
The “Day at the Capitol,” led by Donayle Whitmore-Smith of School Choice Missouri and public housing advocate Bertha Gilkey, was the outgrowth of the Institute for Justice’s latest grassroots campaign stop with Virginia Walden Ford. Virginia, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, led the successful grassroots effort for school choice in the nation’s capital and shares her lessons for parents in a new book, available at IJ’s Freedom Market at fmarket.ij.org.
Since last fall, IJ has brought Virginia to five states—Missouri, Arizona, Iowa, Indiana and Illinois—to train and organize parents and community leaders to speak out for school choice.
The tour is just the beginning of IJ’s efforts to build grassroots support for parental choice in key states with legislative promise, and as the experience in Missouri shows, it’s starting to bear fruit.
While the teachers’ unions and other well-funded special interests have their lobbyists working against school choice in Missouri, for the first time the playing field is a bit more level. And the state’s nascent grassroots movement bodes well for next year’s legislative session.
In the meantime, IJ continued its work as “the lawyers for the school choice movement.” In addition to reviewing proposed legislation, IJ provided legal counsel on the federal educational relief package for displaced hurricane victims. IJ is also involved in efforts in 14 states, including Florida, where an effort to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot to protect the state’s school choice programs for disabled and low-income children fell one vote shy in the state Senate. IJ will be prepared to defend parents in those programs should opponents file a legal challenge.
The Institute’s team also produced a series of state-specific reports, as well as articles and presentations by IJ Senior Attorney Clark Neily for the American Legislative Exchange Council and the James Madison Institute, making clear that the Florida Supreme Court’s illogical and unprincipled ruling striking down school choice is not a barrier to choice efforts elsewhere. In April, IJ Staff Attorney Dave Roland released a report on the constitutionality of school choice in North Carolina in partnership with the North Carolina Education Alliance, helping to set the stage for expanding educational options in that state (available at www.ij.org).
Unfortunately, also in April, Maine’s highest court upheld the State’s discriminatory exclusion of parents who choose religious schools from its “tuitioning” school choice program. IJ expects to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case and vindicate our clients’ rights.
The long march to educational freedom has never been easy. But with characteristic IJ resilience, we will fight for each step toward equal educational opportunity for all.Lisa Knepper is IJ’s director of communications.