Rocky start to school year shows need for more choice in Missouri

Talk about dashed hopes. 

A school year that began weeks ago with at least the promise of a return to normalcy after 18 months of pandemic-driven disruption has again descended into near-chaos. 

Across the state, thousands of students are quarantined, fistfights are breaking out at school board meetings in disputes over mask policies and the State Board of Education has withdrawn a rule that allowed districts and charter schools alike to extend virtual learning alternatives in response to COVID-19. 

Meanwhile, our children continue to suffer, with test scores during the pandemic dropping across all subjects and grade levels. Less than half of Missouri students performed at grade level or above in English during spring 2020 — with barely one-third reaching that bare-bones standard in both science and math. 

Just as countless parents over the past year-and-a-half came to realize that our status quo approach to public education is badly broken, state lawmakers and Gov. Parson offered a glimmer of hope for students and families across Missouri.

The new Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program will provide thousands of students across the state with scholarships worth nearly $6,400 for an array of educational options. 

Yes, those expenses can include private school tuition — but also homeschooling expenses, tutoring, textbooks, computer technology, instructional materials and curriculum, as well as tuition to attend public charter or district schools outside of a student’s assigned location. 

Students living in Cape Girardeau, Columbia, Jefferson City, Joplin, Kansas City, Springfield, St. Joseph the city of St. Louis, as well as the counties of Jackson, Jefferson, Clay, Saint Charles and St. Louis are eligible for the scholarships, which will be funded with tax-deductible donations. To qualify for the program, students must either be receiving special education services or meet certain low-income standards. 

Additionally, they must have attended public school full-time for at least one semester in the prior year or be starting kindergarten or the first grade. 

The new program will be administered by the Missouri treasurer and is expected to be in place by next fall. Interested parents and donors can stay informed on its progress by visiting Show Me School Options, an online portal created by the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri. Missouri is hardly alone in embracing such new approaches. 

This year no fewer than 17 states have expanded school choice through such tools as education savings accounts (ESAs) and tax credit scholarships, including Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Iowa and Indiana. As our neighboring states continue to embrace education reform that puts the needs of students first, I urge my former colleagues in the Legislature to build on this year’s historic session by passing more accountability measures for schools, as well as public charter school funding equity. 

That last one is an especially easy, and necessary, fix to an outdated state education funding formula that unfairly shortchanges public charter schools. Improving education in Missouri is absolutely critical to our economy and it starts by funding students and families, so that their choices hold our bureaucratic systems and its leadership to account. 

In a year of legislative milestones, let’s keep Missouri moving forward.

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