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GROWING THE MOVEMENT: Private school leader shares her fight for ESA legislation

City, state, and federal elected officials recently visited Summit Christian Academy for a legislative breakfast.

Transforming the education landscape in Missouri is a battle that requires a diverse and dedicated coalition of advocates including parents, students, and charter and private school leaders.

Summit Christian Academy Academic Dean and Elementary Principal Kimberlee Gill has been working for the past year to grow the voice of private school leaders in the Kansas City area and throughout the state.

In the short year Gill has been involved in the movement, she has done a lot to help push the fight for Education Saving Accounts (ESAs) forward including organizing a National School Choice Week event, organizing a group of private school leaders to testify in favor of ESAs in Jefferson City, hosting a CEAM advocacy training seminar at her school, and organizing her school’s first Legislative Breakfast which shared the school’s success with city, state, and federal elected officials and over 70 parents.

Fight for choice legislation aligns with private school mission

Gill, who has worked in the private school sector since 1989, said getting involved in statewide education policy was an uncharted but necessary step for both her and her school.

“I started my doctoral degree last year and decided to do my dissertation on Education Saving Accounts (ESAs) and as I learned more about them I wanted to see how we could make this a reality in our state,” she said. “I feel like our state is way behind the times of everybody else.”

She said her school, despite providing over half a million dollars in scholarships every year, frequently has to turn away parents who cannot afford the quality education offered at Summit Christian Academy.

“It is devastating,” said Gill. “We also have situations where the parent’s financial situation changes whether it is from a medical emergency or a job loss and then they have this crisis where they do not want to leave the school and just a little bit of help would make all the difference for their child.”

Gill says that ESAs and similar choice legislation can play a key role in making her school (and others like it) accessible to more students. Over the years she has seen many students make their way to her school from traditional district schools —  students who had fallen behind in a one-size-fits-all system, but who quickly caught up and excelled after coming to Summit Christian Academy.

“We want every child to have the education that is best for them,” she said. “I definitely believe in the public school system and that all of us should be invested to some extent in the public school system. But, every parent should also have the right to choose what is best for their children and part of that should be the option to redirect some of your own tax dollars to what is best for your child’s education.”

Expanding choice is a marathon, not a sprint

Despite all of the great work Gill has done in the past year, she says she recognizes that achieving real change in Missouri’s education policies will be a long battle.

“I have learned that it is a slow process,” she said. “That has not been a fun lesson, but the old fable slow and steady wins the race is my hope.”

Gill said that while the legislative battle in Jefferson City takes time, energizing and activating fellow private school leaders has also taken time.

“For evangelical schools, dipping our toes into state government matters is new water,”  she said, adding that it is a necessary step for the future of those schools. “Everybody is busy and wearing a lot of different hats and yet part of school leadership is ensuring that your kids have a voice.

“Evangelical private schools do not operate in silos, but because this is such new territory getting something started is always slow,” she said.

But when school leaders do start getting involved, Gill said they get excited about how legislation like ESAs could help Missouri.

“It has really been an honor to talk to other people and help them determine ways to get involved,” said Gill. “Everyone has embraced the ideas and we are learning how to bring action to those ideas.  That is what our government is about — everyone having a voice and bringing about what is best for our state and our students.”

Gill’s own school has made legislative action so much a priority that they have added it to Gill’s official job description. She is working with CEAM and two private school associations to spread the word about the impact legislation can have and grow the number of school leaders and parents eager to advocate for change.

“My goal for the coming year is to start getting groups of private school leaders down to Jefferson City so we can start having a voice and speaking with one voice,” she said. “This year the conversation started and next year I hope to have more action.”

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