JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A new law in Missouri is making it easier for some parents to choose their kids’ school after a group of lawmakers pushed for the program for more than a decade.
This school choice legislation is better known as Missouri’s Empowerment Scholarship Account or Education Savings Account (ESA). ESAs allow donors to provide scholarships for students and they would get state tax credits in return.
Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters, sponsored the legislation that received the governor’s signature last month.
“I think COVID and all the shutdowns exposed to parents some of the real weaknesses in our traditional approach to education,” Christofanelli said. “It allows them [parents] to access an alternative in the private sector that better fits the needs of their family and child.”
Christofanelli said 26 other states have a similar program in effect. This flexible spending account can be spent on tuition, tutors, transportation and materials for school.
“If there is a quality education right next door to where these kids are going to school and the only obstacle is that they can’t afford the tuition, the state can step in and provide incentives to get those kids in,” Christofanelli said.
For the last five years, Christofanelli has filed legislation containing ESAs. Before that, Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, sponsored it. Christofanelli believes the bill made it across the finish line this year because of the pandemic and of the right leadership in the House and Senate.
“Many parents were frustrated with the quality of virtual education that their child received,” Christofanelli said. “Many parents watched as their neighbors’ kids in private school saw their kids go back to school while their public school remained closed.”
Here’s how the program works: The Missouri treasurer’s office will qualify nonprofit organizations as education assistance organizations (EAOs). Those nonprofits raise money in the community for the purpose of distributing scholarships.
“There’s no connection between the donor and the recipient,” Christofanelli said. “The donors are interested people that want to support a charitable effort across the community. When the donors donate to the EAOs, they receive a 100% refundable tax credit that can offset their liability to their state income tax.”
Then parents can apply to the EAOs for scholarships. One of the criteria to be eligible for a scholarship is being enrolled in a public school for at least one year before applying for a scholarship.
Students who are prioritized for the scholarships are those under the poverty threshold on free and reduced lunch and students with special needs. The program can then be open to anyone.
There’s a geographic restriction for ESAs. Under the plan, only students living in a Missouri city with a population of 30,000 or more can qualify. House Bill 349 states the treasurer will audit the EAOs receiving the funds to make sure they can only enroll students that are qualified.
“Students are still going to have to take the basic tests that the other public school students have to take in order to track their progress and achievement,” Christofanelli said.
The legislation originally allowed tax credits up to $50 million, but other lawmakers amended the bill to reduce it to $25 million.
“The state operates on limited resources, and any time we issue a tax credit, that is revenue that we are forgoing as a state,” Christofanelli said. “Missouri’s was the largest first-time starting program that occurred this year.”
This new law that’s going into effect Aug. 28 only triggers tax credits if the state funds at least 40% of transportation for public schools.
“I believe that if we empower kids to access an education that allows them to reach their full potential that it will yield extreme benefits for not only them, but our state in the long term,” Christofanelli said.
Becki Uccello’s daughter Izzi was born with Spina Bifida. Izzi started her education at Wanda Gray Elementary School in Springfield but three years later transferred to St. Agnes Cathedral.
“We felt like she was being pulled out of class a lot for physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy,” Becki said. “Izzi is a very social individual, and she loves her friends and being pulled out of class was bumming her out.”
The playground at Wanda Gray was not wheelchair accessible, making it impossible for Izzi to play.
“She likes to play basketball, and there was no way for her to get to the basketball court,” Becki said. “We were told she could play on the grass. We were told that they really couldn’t do anything just for one student.”
After kindergarten, the Uccellos transferred Izzi to St. Agnes, a private school in downtown Springfield.
“They’ve done so much to make sure that she’s included,” Becki said. “The teachers have modified things for her, so instead of pulling her out of class and giving her extra instruction, she’s learning from students that are in her class and she’s learning from the teacher.”
When Izzi transferred, Becki had to take on two extra jobs besides being an eighth-grade teacher at Ozarks Junior High School.
“I felt like we were constantly pinching pennies to make sure that our daughter’s educational needs were taken care of,” Becki said. “If we had an opportunity for ESAs in kindergarten, I wouldn’t have felt the pressure to scramble to find other ways of income.”
Izzi is headed into fifth grade at St. Agnes, while her older brother Jack will be a senior at Ozark High School. Becki said Jack has attended public school his entire life and is a part of the rifle team.
“I think having a variety of options really is the way to go because then parents can decide. I know my kid best; I know what’s best for them,” Becki said. “I’m just so excited for those parents that won’t have to feel the financial pressure that we did.”
But not everyone is in support of the legislation.
After the governor signed the legislation last month, Missouri School Boards’ Executive Director Melissa Randol released a statement saying:
“We are very disappointed with the decision by Governor Parson to sign into law H.B. 349, the voucher bill that provides taxpayer dollars to private institutions that have no accountability to the public for how children are educated or kept safe or how tax dollars are spent.
“We are particularly disappointed that this law further erodes opportunities to fund needed investments in Missouri’s outstanding public schools. Missouri is 49th in the country in average starting teachers’ salaries – we need to invest in Missouri’s high-quality teachers, rather than funnel money to institutions that have no accountability to taxpayers for how they spend taxpayers’ dollars or how they educate our children.”
The treasurer’s office has not yet released details when ESAs will be available for students and donors. A spokeswoman for Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick said his office is beginning the process of drafting rules and meeting with necessary government agencies.