Reimagining Education

2021 Legislative roundup: ESA victory, more work to do on charters, virtual education

2021 was the most exciting year for education reform in Missouri in a decade with lots of attention focused on Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, fixing virtual education, and expanding and improving funding for charter schools.

As the session drew to a close last Friday, students across the state celebrated the creation of the state’s first-ever Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program.

This legislation (HB 349), first passed in the House and later in the Senate, now awaits the signature of Gov. Mike Parson. You can congratulate him on this victory and encourage him to sign the bill here.

In a last-minute twist, a separate bill, passed at the end of last week, lowers the total amount of the ESA program from $50 million a year to $25 million a year, a concession that was necessary to secure several votes in the Senate. You can learn more about Missouri’s new ESA program here.

Despite the amazing success of passing a new ESA program, other education reform initiatives failed to make it through both chambers this year and will be priority issues to focus on during next year’s legislative session.

These issues include:

  • Fixing Missouri’s virtual education program (MOCAP) – Under current law students may enroll in a full-time virtual education program and have their local district pay for it, but they first have to get the approval of the district which sets up a clear conflict of interest. The Missouri Course Access and Virtual Education Program needs to be fixed to allow parents and students to enroll in a virtual education program directly if they feel it is the best fit for their learning style. Hopefully next year, legislators will focus on removing districts (who are frequently more focused on finances than what is best for students) from their current gatekeeper role and give families the power to choose whether or not to learn virtually without needing district approval.
  • Fixing funding for charter schools – There was a big push this year to “fix the glitch” in charter school funding, but unfortunately, legislators were unable to get this fix across the finish line. The issue stems from a decades-old legislative mistake that has resulted in charter school students in St. Louis getting $1,200 less ($800 less in Kansas City) in education funding each year than their peers who attend district schools. The mistake centers around how property taxes play into school funding, tying funding for charter schools to 2005 property tax values while letting district schools receive revenue based on 2021 property tax values. Since real estate and property tax values tend to increase over time, this is a mistake that will likely lead to an even greater disparity in educational funding in future years if it is not fixed. Legislators need to fix this mistake and pass legislation next year that ensures every public school student, whether they attend a district school or a charter school, get funding based on current property tax values.
  • Expanding charter schools (and ESAs) – If you live in Kansas City or St. Louis City you now have broad school choice. You can choose to attend a charter school. If you meet the other criteria you can apply for and receive a scholarship to attend a private school or homeschool (residents of any city with a population of 30,000 or greater also have this freedom now). If your district allows it, you can attend a virtual school. But if you don’t live in one of the major Missouri cities then you are stuck attending the single school designated by your zip code regardless of its overall quality or whether or not it meets your individual needs. This is not a fair system. If you are a Missouri student, you should have the same rights to educational options no matter where you live or how much your parents make. Even as ESAs (which are available in more geographic regions than charter schools) were being passed this year, many rural legislators and families were bemoaning the fact that this student victory would not help their district. Missouri legislators need to remove the geographic restrictions on our school choice initiatives and create a level playing field for every Missouri student. This does NOT mean forcing public charter schools or private schools into rural communities that do not need or want them, it simply means removing the restrictions that prevent those communities from even considering such options.

So after a weekend of celebration over the ESA victory, it is time to start thinking about the future and how we can continue to work to improve education in Missouri by giving families control over their children’s education.

If you would like to get more involved in this movement, simply sign up here.

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