Supporters of an initiative petition that would ask voters to ban the state from granting tax credits to offset the cost of private school tuition have filed a complaint alleging that the draft ballot summary 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 motion, argues that the summary drafted by Ashcroft’s office is “insufficient, unfair and argumentative And includes terms that are not referenced in the language of the petition.
The secretary of state’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday, and when reached by phone, Talbott was not immediately available for comment.
Lawyers representing Talbott include Christopher Grant and Loretta Haggard, both of Schuchat, Cook & Werner in St. Louis. The firm specializes in employee and union representation, and Grant and Haggard have previously represented the Missouri National Education Association in legal proceedings, according to Missouri court records.
A spokesperson for the Missouri NEA did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday on whether the organization was involved in the initiative petition.
End of August, Talbott submitted a request for initiative which would amend the Missouri Constitution to provide that the state “shall not appropriate or pay public funds for a program, nor authorize or implement tax vouchers or credits” for the purpose of providing grants for tuition fees or to cover the costs of participating in non-public activities. schools.
The petition would also require the Missouri State Board of Education to implement and oversee a “uniform method of assessment and accreditation” that would apply to all public schools receiving state funding. .
The problem is how the petition of initiative would be presented to voters.
The synthetic language Ashcroft’s desktop was designed which would appear on the ballot asks if voters would want to amend the constitution to “remove opportunities for the disabled, special needs and economically disadvantaged students by eliminating public funding” through vouchers and tax credits. He also asks if voters wish to “limit the influence, power and authority of parents, community members and local school boards by” demanding that the State Board of Education implement a new accreditation method. , including for charter schools.
In his lawsuit, Talbott argues that it is misleading to focus exclusively on students with disabilities, special needs and economically disadvantaged in the ballot summary. These groups, according to the lawsuit, are still allowed 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 proposed,” which applies to all unqualified students. “
The lawsuit also argues that the use of language like “eliminate” implies that the initiative petition would end all public funding for students to attend private schools.
The wording of the petition specifically describes five exceptions, including allowing income tax deductions that only duplicate federal law or the payment of state fees to place a student with special needs in a private institution such as: than mandated by federal law.
The lawsuit also notes that the initiative petition does not refer to charter schools, despite the summary of the ballot language, and argues that the accreditation system could create greater community involvement in the operation of the schools. chartered “because they will be more accountable and transparent to customers and taxpayers. “
Talbott is asking the courts to require the summary language to ask whether voters wish to “preserve public funding for use in public schools by limiting certain public funding, including vouchers and tax credits …” and “demand that the state school board shall implement and supervise a uniform method of assessment and accreditation… ”
According to the lawsuit, Talbott filed the initiative petition on behalf of Taxpayers for Accountability, a political action committee. He was trained in August and cites Talbott as treasurer, according to Missouri Ethics Commission records.
Talbott is also registered as a member of the North West School District School Board at House Springs in Jefferson County.
In order to appear before voters in 2022, the initiative petition is expected to collect more than 170,000 signatures by the beginning of May next year, according to a petition process manual published by the Secretary of State.
The initiative petition filed by Talbot also prohibits the state from “carrying out any program authorized by previously passed legislation.” During the last legislative session, lawmakers passed a law who will create a bond-like education savings account program. The law encountered opposition from supporters of public schools who feared it would misappropriate funding for public schools.
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 aid organizations. These nonprofits would then distribute scholarships to eligible students, prioritizing students with special needs and students from low-income families. The scholarships could be used for tuition fees in private schools, transportation costs and more.
Originally slated to allow $ 50 million in tax credits issued in the program’s first year, lawmakers passed a second bill that will halve that amount to $ 25 million – a concession to obtain support for passing the program.
Even after the bill is passed questions remained about how the details of the program will work, including a key trigger governing when the program goes into effect.
Implementation is largely left to the treasurer’s office, who said he believes the amount earmarked for FY2022 meets the requirements of the law to allow the program to start. Sponsors of the law had previously said they hoped it would be available to students by the 2022-2023 school year.
The basics of the program are underway. Advocacy organizations organized information sessions to educate interested parents on the new law.
State Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick announced on Monday that Kim Baughman, who most recently served as the head of community finance in the Department of Economic Development, would take on the role of director of program administration that would oversee the new empowerment scholarship program, dubbed “Moscholar. “
Jean Evans, state director of the school choices 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 take children, especially low-to-middle-income students and children with disabilities, from the schools of their dreams and send them away. in the failed school districts where they live. “