Missouri’s school choice program underway, in the process of finding a director

Missouri’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program took effect on August 28, beginning the implementation process of an education savings accounts (ESAs) program for Missouri children. 

HB 349, sponsored by Rep. Phil Christofanelli, was signed into law by Gov. Mike Parson on July 14 and will allow public school students to draw scholarship funds in order to attend the school of their choice. 

The program will be funded by donors who are allowed to claim a tax credit for their contributions and for up to 50 percent of their liability. Those contributions will be placed into ESAs and used towards the costs of tuition, textbooks and tutoring services, among other costs. The program will apply to charter counties and areas with a population of 30,000 or more. 

The Treasurer’s Office is currently drafting the rules and regulations that will help implement and govern the scholarship program, according to Mary Compton, spokesperson for the Treasurer. 

The ESAs will be handled by Education Assistance Organizations (EAOs) that will be chosen by the state Treasurer’s Office. Compton told The Heartlander that the Treasurer’s Office is in the process of recruiting a director whose primary responsibility will be the implementation of the scholarship program. Once a director is chosen, more decisions will be made about the program and its enactment.

According to Compton, a timetable for selecting the EAOs has yet to be determined, but there will likely be an RFI (request for information) that interested entities can respond to.

Compton also said that the Treasurer would like the scholarships to be readily available for students by next school year, but there are a few things that may prolong the program’s implementation. 

“If appropriations are received in time for all procurements to be completed, the office will need to work with selected EAOs to determine if they can receive sufficient donations beginning on July 1, 2022 to award scholarships in time for the school year that begins in August. If at that time, the Treasurer determines it is feasible for the EAOs to award scholarships for the 2022-2023 school year, he will allocate tax credits beginning July 1, 2022.”

Although the Treasurer’s Office seems skeptical about the program’s exact start date, leaders in the Missouri legislature are looking to get it done in time for next year. 

“This ESA program is a long-overdue step in the right direction,” read a press release signed by Senate Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden and Speaker of the House Rob Vescovo. “We look forward to working with State Treasurer Fitzpatrick to quickly implement this program so that scholarships are available for the 2022 school year.”

“There will be thousands of families that have this option now and I’m a big believer that when you empower parents, education outcomes improve,” said Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, chairwoman of the Senate education committee.

The bill is considered by many to be Missouri’s first major education reform in more than a decade and, according to O’Laughlin, there’s one main reason for that.

“The education establishment has been successful with the strategy of not negotiating on bills for years,” she said. “Their rigidity delayed passage of the bill, but not the significance of the policy. This is a huge national win for the school choice movement.”

Peter Franzen, assistant executive director of the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri (CEAM), said he hopes Missouri families won’t have to wait until the 2023-2024 school year to receive the scholarships.

“We’ve met a lot of families who are asking for options for a whole lot of reasons to benefit their kids,” Franzen said. “So we want it to be implemented as soon as possible.”

Franzen also mentioned the recent heightened desire for school choice measures as school shutdowns due to COVID-19 has caused parents to look for alternative routes for their child’s education. 

Elected officials and Americans across the country have noted their frustration with the virus-related school closings. According to a report from the National Education Research Institute, the number of homeschooled students in the U.S. has doubled from 2.5 million in 2019 to an estimated 5 million in 2021. 

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