Missouri creates school choice program for low income students, students with disabilities

JOPLIN, Mo. – Students at College Heights Christian School prepare for the next several months, going through syllabi for their classes on the first day of school.

“Everything’s going very well,” says Dan Decker, Superintendent of College Heights Christian School. “This year we were blessed. We increased our enrollment by almost 60 students.”

The number of students at College Heights this time next year could be even higher because of a new school choice program in Missouri.

The Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program was created by the state last month and aims at giving students with disabilities and students from low-income households scholarships for private school.

The program will give private donors 100% tax credits when they donate to one of ten funds created in the state. Once the program starts in 2022, scholarship funds will go to students so they can attend private schools or any other type of school outside of the public school system. Students will receive up to $6300 that can be used for tuition, transportation, or any other fee associated with schooling. Yearly fees at College Heights are between three and eight thousand dollars, depending on the grade level.

“Even though we work really hard to keep tuition low, it’s still out of the reach of some families,” explains Decker. “It gives families that might not have that option the option.”

The bill was carried through the senate by Senator Andrew Koenig, R- St. Louis. He says the intent is to give parents more control over their kid’s education.

“The traditional public school’s probably best for most kids. But it doesn’t mean it’s the best option for all kids. And so we need to provide parents with other options,” says Koenig.

But some are pushing against the new program, saying it diverts taxpayer dollars away from the state’s already underfunded public education system.

“We need to be investing more money in public education right now in the state of Missouri, rather than reducing the resources available,” says Missouri School Board’s Association Deputy Executive Director Brent Ghan. “Right now we rank 49th in the nation in starting teacher salaries in Missouri. And instead of investing more money into a need like that, we passed a voucher bill that actually dilutes the resources available to public schools.”

The program will only be available to students already enrolled in public education, and students from cities with 30 thousand or more residents, like Springfield, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Joplin. The legislation also states that any student who shifts away from public education will continue to be counted in their home districts for five years after the program starts, delaying the potential financial hit to public institutions.

“The reality is it should be money going to educate a child,” says Koenig. “If you take any other government program that we have, for instance like food stamps, we don’t go to a government grocery store. Why should we do something different in education?”

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