“We did it y’all, we really did it,” Carmen Ward, a long-time advocate for school choice, muttered, almost disbelievingly, on the ride back from the signing ceremony for HB349 this week.
That sense of disbelief is understandable since Carmen has spent the past 18 years fighting for parents to have more control over their children’s education. But as the reality of how the new Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program will help thousands of students across Missouri access better educational opportunities sets in, disbelief is turning to joy and a determination to spread the word for Carmen and other parents who have spent years advocating in Jefferson City.
“My son Paul has an IEP, he has autism, and I have been fighting for 18 years for children like him to have options and it is a surreal moment that he gets to see the end,” Carmen said. “When I think about how it started it was lonely going back and forth up to Jefferson City year after year trying to get people to understand that all children need options but then also trying to get them to understand the undertone of IEPs in this. The Education Scholarship Accounts, for me, they focus on children with IEPs so for me it is a game-changer and it opens the door for a conversation about a very critical population in education.
“When this passed I cried,” she added. “I called the people who were boots on the ground with me and talked about what it feels like to have this happen and now we can get busy with the next leg of the work and that’s to tell parents like me what they need to do to access this opportunity. Now we take to the streets and we make sure parents understand what this bill is and how to utilize it.”
Becki Uccello, who has spent the past three years visiting Jefferson City with her daughter Izzie to fight for school choice, said she was happy to have been a part of this victory for Missouri students.
“I know there have been people that have come here for many years more than we have, but it’s super exciting that we have witnessed this process and we have actually seen how a bill becomes a law and that is priceless,” she said. “I thought it would be like we testify and we’re done. But then talking with other advocates and knowing that for some people they’ve been doing this for five years or eight years or ten years I feel lucky that we only did it for three years and it happened.”
Becki said Empowerment Scholarship Accounts would be a real game-changer for those students who had a hard time getting what they needed from traditional schools.
“Not every student fits well in public school,” she said. “My son goes to public school and it has worked for him. For Izzie, with her physical needs as well as her brain is wired differently, being in a private school and having a smaller class size and a more inclusive environment has made her flourish. I just really hope that parents see that there are other solutions besides public school and they now have the financial backing to try out something else that will work for the kids.”
Johnnie Calloway, who joined the fight for better school options this year, said Empowerment Scholarship Accounts would help students of all walks of life.
“This is the change we’ve been waiting on in Missouri,” he said. “We’ve said for years and years and years after fighting and pleading that we want school choice, that we want parents to be able to control where their students are and what opportunities their children have and it’s now here.
“I was fortunate enough to work at a private school and you see the light-years difference that children in the inner city gets, not even just inner cities but in rural areas versus people who have the money and the privilege to exercise their options,” he added. “With this bill passing every child gets those opportunities. It isn’t about race. It isn’t about your creed or your religion or your politics. It’s solely about we want every young child to have a great opportunity to grow up and be successful and to become whatever they’re designed to be in life.”
Lisa Smith, a long-time school choice advocate, said seeing the law finally passed was a real milestone for Missouri students.
“I’m proud of this moment,” she said. “The governor signing this bill into law, it is a milestone in education. It means that choice is available. It means access to a better education and better schooling is available. It is paramount that our kids have access to a quality education and parents need choice. With choice our students will succeed.”