Cole County Judge Jon Beetem (screenshot courtesy of KRCG-TV)
A Cole County judge kept intact most of the ballot summary Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft wrote for an initiative petition seeking to bar public funds from going to private schools.
On Wednesday, Cole County Circuit Court Judge Jon Beetem ruled that Ashcroft was correct to say in the summary that the initiative petition would remove opportunities for disabled, special needs, and economically disadvantaged students. But Ashcroft’s description of how the petition would limit the influence of parents and school boards went too far, Beetem ruled.
The initiative petition seeks to overturn a tax credit program enacted by lawmakers last year that funds scholarships for Missouri students to help pay for costs like private school tuition.
It was filed by Sherri Talbott, the treasurer of the political action committee Taxpayers for Accountability and a school board member for the Northwest School District in House Springs. Talbott sued Ashcroft in October, after he wrote a summary for the petition that Talbott argued in her lawsuit was “insufficient, unfair and argumentative.”
Reached by phone, Talbott said she had not yet read the ruling in its entirety and therefore could not comment on whether she intended to appeal the ruling.
JoDonn Chaney, a spokesman for Ashcroft, said after reviewing the ruling the office is preparing for the possibility to seek an appeal.
Becki Uccello, the treasurer of Keep the Promise Missouri, a political action committee formed to oppose the petition, said she was pleased to see Beetem rule in favor of the language her committee proposed.
“This ESA program is an important step forward for Missouri students. The NEA’s efforts to end this scholarship program before it even starts is a significant threat that we will continue to fight,” Uccello said, referencing the sole donor to Talbott’s PAC.
All parties agreed that the initiative petition would eliminate the tax credit program, Beetem wrote. He wrote in his ruling that he disagreed with Talbott’s assertion that the initiative petition would “preserve general revenue for public schools.”
The Empowerment Scholarships Account (ESA) program that lawmakers created currently prioritizes scholarships for special needs students who have an individualized education plan as well as low-income students. Students whose families fall below 100% of the income standard used to qualify for free and reduced price lunches — which is a little over $48,000 for a household of four in Missouri — would be prioritized ahead of students whose family incomes are 200% of that standard — nearly $97,000 annually for a household of four.
Ashcroft’s summary asks voters if they would like to, “remove opportunities for disabled, special needs and those students who are economically disadvantaged by eliminating” public funding from going toward non-public schools.
Beetem kept that portion of Ashcroft’s summary intact, and wrote that it was “fair and sufficient.”
At a hearing last month, Loretta Haggard, an attorney representing Talbott, argued singling out those students was “plainly calculated to prejudice voters against the measure,” and said the petition aims to also bar any expanded tax credit or voucher programs lawmakers may later pass that would be available to all students.
Because the ESA program does provide funding for those categories of students, and the initiative petition would eliminate the program, “the first bullet point of the summary statement gives voters ‘a meaningful sense of what the proposed amendment would accomplish,’” Beetem wrote.
Talbott’s initiative petition would also direct the Missouri State Board of Education to apply a “uniform method of evaluation and accreditation” to all public schools, therefore requiring charter schools to be subject to the same accreditation standards as all other public schools.
Beetem said it would be a “dramatic expansion” of the Board of Education’s power, and wrote that Ashcroft “appropriately concluded voters must be apprised that this is an effect of the measure.”
However, Beetem agreed with Talbott that Ashcroft “went too far,” noting that outside of charter schools, “it is speculative as to if and how the measure will limit the influence of parents, community members and local school boards.”
With no party able to articulate the impact at last month’s hearing, Beetem issued revised language for that section.
Ashcroft’s summary had previously asked if voters would like to, “limit the influence, power and authority of parents, community members and local school boards” by requiring the uniform method.
Beetem struck that language and replaced it with “expand the power of the state board of education over areas currently under the control of local school boards…” He also kept a reference to charter schools, another area Haggard had argued was unnecessary, noting that the petition never referenced charter schools.
Talbott has a little over four months to collect the necessary 171,592 signatures by early May in order for the proposed constitutional amendment to appear on the November 2022 ballot.
Funding behind the political action committees in opposition and support of the proposal signal a well-funded battle may be on the horizon.
Talbott’s PAC has received $9,000 from a single campaign committee connected to the Missouri NEA.
Meanwhile, Uccello’s PAC has received $15,000 from the Washington, D.C.,-based school-choice advocacy group American Federation for Children Inc. and $25,000 from Missouri billionaire and school-choice advocate Rex Sinquefield.
This story has been updated since it was first published to include additional comments.
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