Bills aim to expand state's A+ program

Wednesday, June 8, 2016
A+ students from Cassville High School who were recognized at the school's annual scholarship awards assembly. The students must go through rigorous requirements to be eligible for the A+ scholarship program, which includes maintaining a 2.5 GPA, 95-percent attendance over all four years of high school, maintaining good citizenship, achieving a proficient or advanced score on their Algebra 1 end-of-course exam, and completing at least 50 hours of tutoring. Schools must also complete several prerequisites. Legislation, which is currently on the governor's desk waiting to be signed before the July 15 deadline, seeks to modify the A+ program to allow students attending all schools, including non-public ones, to be eligible to qualify for and have access to the scholarship program. Julia Kilmer/reporter@cassville-democrat.com

Local educators concerned about equality, funding

The A+ scholarship program, created more than 20 years ago to help qualifying graduating seniors pay for college tuition and fees at participating public community colleges and vocational-technical schools, may be modified to include all schools, and students, in Missouri.

Previously, the program was only available to public schools and students attending them, which must go through rigorous procedures to qualify. The proposed changes have prompted concerns among local educators.

"The second year it was offered, we had to wait three years and put together huge files of information on the material we were presenting to qualify," said Tyne Rabourn, A+ coordinator for the Cassville school district for 16 years. "And they came down and observed us and checked the building, and checked our finances to see if we could come up with an additional person to take care of things.

"The last few schools that have gone into the program have not gone through all of those paces, and so we're concerned the state would not have the people to check those schools [to ensure they are in compliance]. I know there are some schools in the area that did not have a visitor come look at all their material. Another thing that concerns me is last year, they didn't know if they could fund our students, and here they are thinking about adding more students."

House Bill 2693, sponsored by State Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, proposes that the A+ program be extended to qualifying students who attend non-public schools as well.

Rabourn is also concerned the changes may not be exactly equitable.

"My concern is that students in the program must complete 50 hours of tutoring and keep their grades up, but students who can't afford college [and may not have completed the same requirements], would be the only ones to benefit," she said. "At one time, we were able to decide if they didn't have the funds, if every student should get the same amount, or if funds should go to those that couldn't afford college."

Funding was another concern.

"Where's the money going to come from?" she said. "Would I like for every student to have that opportunity? Yes, but I think they need to work for it, and I am concerned there's [not enough] money out there to begin with."

In addition to providing scholarships, Rabourn spoke of the positive changes the A+ program has created since its implementation.

"It's lowered drop-out rates, increased attendance, and presented classes that are more career and university oriented," she said. "We continue to meet those goals and have added dual-credit classes."

A+ tutors are also utilized in area school districts after school, and during summer school, to help local students, she said. In fact, from a pool of 50 A+ Cassville students, more than 4,669 tutoring hours were completed during the 2016 school year.

"Annie Dodson and Abby Rose had over 200 hours," she said. "Both of them are going to be teachers. We've had six or seven A+ students come back here to teach. We have a banker in town who did A+, and an insurance man."

"Back when schools became eligible, there was a process they had to go through," said Kara Tinklepaugh, A+ coordinator and high school counselor for the Monett school district. "It wasn't just given to schools, they had to meet certain criteria and milestones. The biggest benefit is the program gives students who didn't seek out college, it gives them that option. If they can't get the finances for college somewhere else, they know they can work toward that [with the A+ program]."

Tinklepaugh said the criteria for students to be eligible include a 2.5 average GPA, 95 percent attendance over all four years, to score proficient or advanced on the Algebra end-of-course exam, complete 50 hours of tutoring, and maintain good citizenship.

"If by completing those things and schools abiding by the program's directives, I absolutely think the student deserves to be eligible for that scholarship," she said.

State Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, said funding for the bill is not an issue.

"The students and schools still have to meet all the same standards and requirements," he said. "The only thing we did was make it so that those schools, if they want to go through the same steps, can become eligible. The way the law is right now, you can only have access to the program if you went to a public school that met the criteria."

The other proposed change, Senate Bill 650, sponsored by State Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, modifies the program by removing the requirement that the student's attendance of public high school occur in the three years immediately prior to graduation.

"The only other thing we did is we made it so that if a student studied abroad, it allowed their study there and not to lose access to a third school year," Fitzpatrick said, "So we're not making it easier, just more accessible. The A+ scholarship is funded by all taxpayers in the state, so it's not right to tell those families they have to pick between sending their student to a public school that has A+ access, or send them to one that doesn't but may be a better fit for them.

"I will do whatever it takes to make sure that the program is funded. Even if every single school in the state that doesn't have access to A+ went through the process to become eligible, then the cost is expected to be about $3.9 million, which is not much when the state has a $27.2 billion budget. The amount is not that significant. The program is funded with income tax and sales tax dollars, and the parents of non-public schools pay those dollars, too. So it's not reasonable to ask those parents to pay for the A+ program that those students do not have access to. It doesn't matter how much it costs, if it made it to where each student got less money, it's still the right thing to do to make it accessible to all parents who are paying taxes in the state of Missouri."

Fitzpatrick said the bills are on Gov. Jay Nixon's desk waiting to be signed, with a July 15 deadline.

State Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, did not return multiple messages for comment on this story.

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