Fifth grade students at Eugene Field Elementary in Springfield take part in an annual skills and interests exhibition. It's estimated that about 73% of elementary-school-aged children in Springfield go to public schools. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Springfield's population is growing, but its public school district — the largest in Missouri — is not. 

That finding from a demographic study startled some Springfield Board of Education members when it was introduced in 2023, and reignited a conversation about how the school district can market itself and highlight its strengths to attract more students. 

The options for K-12 education are growing — more private schools are opening their doors to parents, and since the COVID-19 pandemic, homeschooling has grown in popularity. 

Efforts by Missouri lawmakers to create “school choice” options, where parents might be able to use taxpayer money or tax credit incentives to enroll their children in schools other than their assigned public district, have made headway in 2024

The environment sets up what people across Springfield see as a competition between public and private schools for students. But it may be an unfair competition — educators point out that, unlike private schools, public schools are obligated to accept and accommodate every eligible student who walks through the doors. 

On April 2, Springfield Public Schools voters will consider seven candidates for three open seats on the Springfield Board of Education. Incumbents Danielle Kincaid, Scott Crise and Maryam Mohammadkhani are running against challengers Landon McCarter, Susan Provance, Kyler Sherman-Wilkins and Chad Rollins.

The candidates running for seats on the Springfield Board of Education have mixed opinions on what role they should have in that discussion, and shared those thoughts in a series of podcast interviews with the Hauxeda.

SPS market share: 75% of school-aged kids

A need for an updated demographic study was identified by the school district’s Community Task Force on Facilities in 2022, an ad hoc group that studied which schools should be the focus for renovation and improvement. 

Lorne Woods, a senior project manager with Davis Demographics, speaks to Springfield Board of Education members in November 2023. (Photo by Joe Hadsall)

Davis Demographics was hired for the job and returned its results in November. While the most immediate need for the study was to help make decisions for Pershing and Robberson elementary schools, the study offered a number of student population projections over the next 10 years. 

Tucked within wide-ranging study was some information about how private schools and homeschooling fit into the overall picture of K-12 education in Springfield. 

In the study, demographers compared the number of school-aged students in the district with the number who were actually enrolled in public schools. They came up with a capture rate of 75%, with an enrolled 2023 population of 22,807 students against a total population of 30,254 children. 

That percentage dips to 73% at elementary grades and to 71% at middle school grades, but rises to 82% at high school.

Parents seek options outside SPS

One reason for the larger high school enrollment percentage is that among several private schools in Greene County, only six instruct at the high school level — Dayspring Christian School, Grace Classical Academy, Greenwood Laboratory School, New Covenant Academy, Springfield Catholic High School and the Summit Preparatory School. 

The demographic study acknowledges that options are growing in an educational landscape transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The report states private schools saw a surge in interest as families sought more personalized, adaptable learning options. 

According to the most recent available Private School Universe Survey data, collected by the U.S. Census, 3,687 students were enrolled in private schools in Springfield during the 2021-22 school year. 

This table was part of a demographic study performed by Davis Demographics, presented to Springfield Board of Education members.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reported that 485 students living within the SPS district are being homeschooled. Reporting homeschooled students to the state is not required, but homeschool advocacy groups in Missouri recommend parents report their students to the state government to avoid charges of truancy. 

According to the study, school districts facing similar issues are working more to highlight their programs and strengths to the public. 

“Public K-12 administrators are seizing the opportunity presented by areas experiencing stagnant population growth to actively engage with their communities,” the study reads. “By focusing on building institutional success, these administrators aim to strengthen public support and attract increased enrollment from families who may not have initially considered public schools, potentially including those from non-public school backgrounds.”

Statewide political issues at play, including ‘school choice’ 

In Missouri, school choice advocates have long pressed for laws that would give tax credits to people who rely on private schools or homeschooling. Opponents have resisted, saying the tax credits threaten to remove funding from public schools.

This year is no different, but in March, a key compromise was made. Democrats in the Missouri Senate ended a filibuster of a tax-credit expansion program after Republicans added provisions to boost funding for public schools and teacher retention efforts. If passed, the MOScholars program’s availability would increase to the entire state.

As members of the Springfield Board of Education, board members don’t have a lot of control over what happens in the Missouri legislature. Earlier this year, the school board members agreed, with a unanimous vote on a legislative platform to guide lobbyist Jason Zamkus. 

They were divided, however, on whether to support a specific bill sponsored by Sen. Jill Carter, R-Granby. Senate Bill 814 would remove the state’s power to create a statewide assessment system and related report cards, and allow school districts to choose their own alternatives. Mohammadkhani proposed backing the bill, but a Springfield scvhool board vote to do so failed 4-3. 

Candidates consider ‘competition’

School board candidates (pictured from left to right) Landon McCarter, Chad Rollins, Danielle Kincaid, Susan Provance, Kyler Sherman-Wilkins, Scott Crise and Maryam Mohammadkhani are introduced Tuesday during a Springfield Chamber of Commerce event. The seven are running for seats on the Springfield Board of Education. (Photo by Joe Hadsall)

All seven candidates say they respect the decisions of parents or guardians to make school decisions for their children, and have no interest in changing that. They also say that strong public schools are important for the city’s health.

Where they differ is how much SPS should work to get students back from those alternatives.

Rollins and Mohammadkhani said that the district can make gains by focusing on better academic performance and safety measures for children, and pledged to focus on those.

Crise said following the district’s strategic plan will help strengthen the district. In addition to academic performance standards, he pointed out its emphasis on diverse opportunities for students through SPS Choice programs.

Sherman-Wilkins said that he was concerned about larger cultural and political factors that threatened public schools, and touted their ability to be more responsive to a community.

Kincaid, McCarter and Provance said that parents are going to ultimately make decisions for their children on things that the district may have no control over, so they will emphasize making schools as excellent as possible.

Of the candidates with children: McCarter, Provance, Crise, Rollins and Mohammadkhani have children who either attend or have graduated from Springfield Public Schools, and Mohammadkhani has a child enrolled in a private school.

CANDIDATE VIEWS

The seven candidates for Springfield Board of Education discussed behavior, discipline and the district’s approach to both in our Candidate Conversations podcasts. The Hauxeda asked the following question of each candidate: 

“There is a perception that public schools are competing with private schools and home schools as alternatives to the Springfield district. In the face of static enrollment projections over the next decade, how much does that perception sway you?”

The following are quotes from those interviews. You can listen to their full answers here. 

Danielle Kincaid

“It doesn't sway me one way or another. I'm a supporter of public schools because I am a product of public schools, and I believe every single child in our community regardless of their background or abilities deserves a good education, so that they can be set up to the best of their abilities.to enter our community as productive citizens.

“And as a business owner, I think you have to support public schools, because again, we're welcoming everyone in there. But that being said, I respect a parent’s or guardian’s personal decision for their own children whether to send them to public school or private school.”

Landon McCarter

“A parent has a choice of where they are going to send their kid. Our funding is directly related to our attendance and how many kids we have in the district, so I don’t think that’s a perception, I think that’s a reality.

“I do understand that in order to be a successful community, we have to have a robust, amazing public school system. Personally, my wife and I aren’t planning on pulling our kids out of Springfield Public Schools … But ultimately, there are a lot of parents that have chosen to just pull their kids out of the district and put them in others.”

Susan Provance

“I have nothing against homeschool. That’s a parent’s decision to make for their child, and they should be the first and foremost decision maker. We have very successful private schools, and I don’t have a problem with that either. That is a parent making their decision based on what they feel is best for their child.

“Public schools, we can’t fight that. We don’t want to fight that. We look at our students that come to our public schools and say, ‘Your parents sent you to us because we’re going to take care of you. So I don’t see this as a head-to-head competition. I see the city of Springfield working to educate the next generation as parents see best.

Scott Crise

“I know that’s a reality. And so we need to make it where people want to stay in the Springfield Public Schools district. How do we do that? Follow the strategic plan. Make sure that we have Choice programs, and I think we have a good selection of them. Making sure we collaborate with the community.

“One of the best examples is the Alliance for Healthcare Education, where we are working together with OTC, MSU and Cox. There is a great need (for health care workers) in this community, and we are helping with that need, and we’re also helping out our students to come out with a degree from OTC alongside their high school diploma … It’s a win-win for everybody.”

Kyler Sherman-Wilkins

“It sways me quite a bit, because currently we are facing a number of challenges that, I think if those trends continue, will certainly weaken public schools … Some of our founding fathers spoke really highly of the idea of creating public schooling, because they believe that it wasn’t just important to learn ABCs and 123s, but also to create civilly engaged, holistically trained people who work together as citizens.

“Not that you can’t get that in other school contexts, but I believe it’s stronger with public schools. When you have a democratically elected board, they are more accountable to the diverse needs of a community and public in a way that private or charter schools are not.”

Chad Rollins

“When I grew up here, I would say that the percentage of parents sending their kids to public school was much higher. Now, there are more options out there, so that is a real thing.

“My job on the board of education will be to make Springfield Public Schools the best option. Parents are still going to choose what they want to do, but we want to get a good option, where students are safe and they are getting a good education.

Maryam Mohammadkhani

“This is truly emerging as a core challenge. It’s becoming more and more mainstream, and now we are seeing an expansion. It feels like every time I turn around, there is another parochial school, or non-religious place. This matters to me because I think the only way that we can … fundamentally alter this path is by altering the real or perceived relative position of those measurable SPS academic measures and disciplinary measures when put up side by side against those alternatives.

“Students in SPS will be our future leaders. So while I care for students individually, because I want them to have every opportunity to grow and develop, to thrive and to learn, I also care about our community. I want them to be the best that they can be for themselves as individuals, but I also want them to be the best they can be for us as a community.”

Joe Hadsall

Joe Hadsall is the education reporter for the Hauxeda. Hadsall has more than two decades of experience reporting in the Ozarks with the Joplin Globe, Christian County Headliner News and 417 Magazine. Contact him at (417) 837-3671 or jhadsall@hauxeda.com. More by Joe Hadsall