The Missouri legislature will, in all likelihood, be considering an Education Savings Account bill when it returns to session in 2018, most likely a bill very similar to the one considered in 2017.
Creating even a limited ESA program would be a victory for thousands of families across the state, but there are a number of improvements to the bill which could make it even more effective in helping Missouri students access more educational options.
The legislation considered last year defines students as eligible for the ESA’s Empowerment Scholarships only if they have special needs, are in the foster care system or are the children of active military.
Those limited subgroups certainly would benefit from the choices ESAs would provide, but the program would have even more impact if the qualifying group was expanded to offer the benefits to even more students.
Ideally, the program would be open to any family who wanted the option to choose what school would best serve their child, but at a bare minimum, the program should be expanded to include any child with a disability and not just those with an IEP as well as expanding it to include siblings of participants to make it easier for parents to enroll all their children in the same learning environment if they wish.
An even more effective expansion of the proposed program would include families receiving free or reduced lunches — a move that would go along way to leveling the educational playing field in Missouri’s larger metropolitan areas and offering some of the state’s most disadvantaged families a real path to a better future.
The proposed program would require participating students to have attended a public school for at least a semester during the year prior to applying for ESA funding.
That may seem like a small requirement, but for families that have spent years fighting for better services for their children in traditional public schools, families that have made major sacrifices to figure out ways to afford to pay to get their children into a private school or to make it possible to homeschool, being asked to return to a public school in order to qualify for the program can be a major obstacle.
The program should be open to all Missouri families regardless of where they chose to send their children the previous year.
Only by opening the program in this way can it truly serve all of the families it is designed to help.
The ESA program proposed last year would have provided $6,241 per year per student to help families seek a variety of other educational opportunities including homeschooling, private schools or virtual education.
While that funding would certainly be a help, it is too low to educate many children with severe disabilities. Scholarship amounts should scale with the severity of a disability.