Lawsuit challenges ballot summary of Missouri petition barring private school vouchers

The initiative petition would ask voters whether the state should issue tax credits to pay for costs like private school tuition

By: - November 2, 2021 1:00 pm

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Proponents of an initiative petition that would ask voters to prohibit the state from issuing tax credits to offset the cost of private school tuition have filed a lawsuit alleging the ballot summary written by Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft is misleading.

In a lawsuit filed Oct. 15 in Cole County Circuit Court, Sherri Talbott, who filed the initiative petition, argues that the summary language crafted by Ashcroft’s office is “insufficient, unfair and argumentative” and includes terms that aren’t referenced in the petition’s language.

If placed on the 2022 ballot and approved by voters, the initiative petition would block a new tax credit program passed by lawmakers to fund scholarships to go toward costs such as private school tuition. In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Ashcroft said he crafted the language based on concerns his office had during the initiative petition comment period.

“It is unfortunate that some would try and change the law by misleading the people,” Ashcroft said. “I have stood up for election integrity during my entire time as secretary of state, and I will continue to fight to make sure that the people of Missouri know exactly what is it is they are voting on, so they may vote accordingly.”

The attorneys representing Talbott include Christopher Grant and Loretta Haggard, both from the firm Schuchat, Cook & Werner in St. Louis. The firm specializes in representing employees and labor unions, and both Grant and Haggard have previously represented the Missouri National Education Association in lawsuits, according to Missouri court records.

Reached Tuesday, Haggard said Missouri NEA was not involved, but declined to comment when asked if Missouri NEA had connected Talbott with the firm.

“This is Sherri Talbott’s petition, so that’s who we represent in this case,” Haggard said. “It is true we also represent Missouri NEA in other matters.”

A Missouri NEA spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday on whether the organization has any involvement in the initiative petition.

In late August, Talbott filed the initiative petition seeking to amend the Missouri Constitution to stipulate that the state “shall not appropriate or pay public funds for any program, nor authorize or implement vouchers or tax credits” for the purpose of providing tuition subsidies or to cover the costs of attendance at non-public schools.

The petition would also require the Missouri State Board of Education to implement and oversee a “uniform method of evaluation and accreditation” that would apply to all public schools receiving state funding.

At issue in the lawsuit is the way the initiative petition would be framed to voters. 

The summary language Ashcroft’s office crafted that would appear on the ballot asks if voters would want to amend the constitution to “remove opportunities for disabled, special needs, and those students who are economically disadvantaged by eliminating public funding” through vouchers and tax credits. It also asks if voters would like to “limit the influence, power and authority of parents, community members and local school boards by” requiring the State Board of Education to implement a new accreditation method, including for charter schools.

The lawsuit argues that focusing exclusively on disabled, special needs and economically disadvantaged students in the ballot summary is misleading. Those groups, the lawsuit says, would still be permitted to attend private schools and the initiative petition applies to all students.

“This distorted characterization is argumentative and calculated to prejudice voters against the measure by suggesting that the Measure targets the most vulnerable students,” the lawsuit reads, “and does not provide a fair summary of what is being proposed, which applies to all students without qualification.”

The lawsuit also argues that using language like “eliminating” implies that the initiative petition would end all public funding for students to attend private schools.

The petition language specifically outlines five exceptions, including allowing for income tax deductions that merely duplicate federal law or payment of the state’s costs to place a student with special needs in a private facility as mandated by federal law.

The lawsuit also notes that the initiative petition does not reference charter schools, despite the ballot language’s summary, and says the accreditation system could create greater community involvement in how charter schools operate “because they will be more accountable and transparent to patrons and taxpayers.”

Talbott is asking the courts to require the summary language ask if voters would like to “preserve public funding for use in public schools by limiting certain public funding including vouchers and tax credits…” and “require the state board of education to implement and supervise a uniform method of evaluation and accreditation…”

According to the lawsuit, Talbott filed the initiative petition on behalf of Taxpayers for Accountability, a political action committee. It was formed in August and lists Talbott as the treasurer, according to Missouri Ethics Commission records.

Talbott is also listed as a school board member for the Northwest School District in House Springs in Jefferson County.

In order to appear before voters in 2022, the initiative petition would need to gather at least 171,592 signatures by early May of next year, according to a petition process handbook published by the Secretary of State’s Office.

This past legislative session, lawmakers passed a law that will create a voucher-like education savings account program. The law faced opposition from public school advocates who worried it would funnel funding away from public school. 

It was a top priority for school choice advocates and was signed into law by Gov. Mike Parson in July.

The “Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program” allows residents to receive a tax credit for donating to certain educational assistance organizations. Those nonprofits would then dole out scholarships to eligible students, prioritizing students with special needs and students from low-income families. Scholarships could be used for private school tuition, transportation costs and more.

Initially slated to allow for $50 million in tax credits issued in the program’s first year, lawmakers passed a second bill that will cut that amount in half to $25 million — a concession to win support for the program’s passage.

Even after the bill’s passage questions remained about how specifics of the program will work, including a key trigger governing when the program goes into effect.

Implementation is largely left to Missouri Treasurer’s Office, which has said it believes the amount appropriated for fiscal year 2022 meets the requirements under the law to allow the program to begin. The sponsors of the legislation previously said they hope it will be available to students by the 2022-23 school year.

The groundwork for the program is underway. Advocacy organizations have held information sessions to educate interested parents about the new law.

On Monday, state Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick announced Kim Baughman, who most recently served as a community finance manager within the Department of Economic Development, would serve as the Director of Program Administration that would oversee the new empowerment scholarship program, dubbed “MOScholars.”

Jean Evans, state director of the school-choice advocacy group Missouri Federation for Children, said her organization would oppose the initiative petition if it ends up on the ballot. She argued in a statement to The Independent that eliminating the education savings accounts program would “remove children, particularly low-to-middle-income students and children with disabilities, from the schools of their dreams and return them to the failing school districts where they live.”

This story has been updated since it was first published.

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Tessa Weinberg
Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg covered education, health care and the legislature with the Missouri Independent. She previously covered the Missouri statehouse for The Kansas City Star and The Columbia Missourian, where her reporting into social media use by the governor prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. She also covered state government in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.