On Saturday, Aug. 28, students and families across Missouri will celebrate a historic victory for education as two bills, HB349 and SB86 officially become law. These combined bills create the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) Program, finally giving thousands of Missouri families the power to choose an education that meets their children’s specific needs. Missouri joins 28 other states in offering robust options to more children.
“My children deserve a great education no matter their race, their gender, their sex, or even their neighborhood,” said Makunda Lewis-Newton, a Kansas City parent with three daughters in the Hickman Mills School District. “An empowerment scholarship could help address these issues, even if it’s just helping these children get to better schools in their neighborhoods. This will give our children a chance to shine. They deserve a future.”
Under the new ESA program students living in Jackson, St, Louis, Saint Charles, or Jefferson counties or a city with a population over 30,000 (including St. Louis City, Columbia, Jefferson City, Springfield, Joplin, Cape Girardeau, and St. Joseph) can qualify to receive an ESA scholarship of up to $6,375 for a wide variety of K-12 educational needs.
In order to qualify for a scholarship, students must either have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or have a household income of up to 200 percent of the Free and Reduced Lunch eligibility level and have attended a public school for at least a semester in the year prior to applying for a scholarship.
ESA scholarships can be used to pay for private school tuition, used to cover homeschooling expenses, purchase textbooks and education-related technology, pay for tutoring and educational therapy costs, and even to pay tuition to public charter schools and district schools outside of a student’s assigned school district.
When the program is fully implemented it is expected to help up to 4,000 Missouri students access better educational opportunities.
“For more than a decade students, parents, and teachers have been pleading for the right to choose the best education for their child,” said Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri’s (CEAM) executive director Laura Slay. “On behalf of the thousands of parents who have worked to make this bill a reality, the CEAM team of staff and volunteers thank our state leaders for putting students’ needs first.”
In an effort to help families understand the new law and find out if they qualify, the Children’s Education Alliance has launched a new website, ShowMeSchoolOptions.org, focused on providing families and potential donors with accurate information about the Empowerment Scholarship Account program. Families visiting the site can sign up for notifications about when scholarships become available, check the requirements to qualify for ESA scholarships, and learn about what educational expenses can be paid for with the scholarships. The website will be updated throughout the fall as details are finalized through the rulemaking process.
In addition to helping Missouri students, the new law will also provide increased funding for traditional public schools in Missouri.
One key provision ensures that any school district that has a student who uses an ESA scholarship to leave the district will continue to receive state and federal funding for that student for five years after the student leaves.
Families across the state are excited about the new program, even though it still has to go through a rulemaking process before scholarships are available.
“I will definitely be using an ESA to send my kids to a private school,” Latasha Buchanan said. “I had to move into the Ferguson-Florissant School District and the school that my kids are at are low-performing and the classes are way overcrowded. With COVID, it isn’t safe for my kids to be in a classroom with 40 kids. A private school would be safer for my kids since they are smaller schools and have smaller class sizes. It would be more academically on par with what they experienced in Parkway. When they switched to FFSD they were learning things they had learned a few years back at Parkway. If I had my choice I would choose to send them to Lutheran North.”
“The best decision I made for my son’s education was to enroll in virtual through MOVA K-12. He’s getting better grades than he ever did when he was in brick-and-mortar schools,” Sandra Krausz said. “When the ESA program starts I will be looking into private school. That’s something I have wanted for him for a long time. Since my son has an IEP he would greatly benefit from therapies and tutoring and I would also use the funds for books.”
House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold; Senate Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia; and bill sponsors Rep. Christofanelli and Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester; issued the following joint statement:
“With everything happening in our schools today, parents and students need educational choice now more than ever. There is no greater tool to break the cycles of crime and poverty and to create good jobs and thriving communities—than a quality education. Less than half of Missouri students are performing at grade-level in reading and math—clearly the traditional one-size-fits-all approach just isn’t working. It’s time to empower Missouri parents to make the educational choices that will best meet their children’s unique needs. This ESA program is a long-overdue step in the right direction. We look forward to working with the state treasurer’s office to quickly implement this program so that scholarships are available for the 2022 school year.”
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