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Murphy: Building a Better Future for Missouri Families

by Brian Murphy

Every parent wants their children to have a better future and more opportunities than they did growing up. But right now, that better future looks to be in jeopardy for Missouri. This National School Choice Week, we should remember that providing quality education to all Missouri children doesn’t just represent a moral imperative—it’s an economic imperative as well.

A recent economic study raised concerns about the state of the Missouri economy. Not only does the state have slower economic growth than most other states, productivity—output per employee—remains stagnant. That stagnation stems in part from a “brain drain” of talented students who move elsewhere, making it difficult for Missouri businesses to find and retain highly educated and skilled talent.

My colleagues and I have witnessed this personally in the construction industry as we struggle to find trained project managers, estimators, IT, administrative and skilled field labor. It is even harder to attract them when neighboring states economies are providing more opportunities and growth. I hear a similar story from the financial, health care, and IT industries.

Revitalizing Missouri’s workforce has been a key focus of Gov. Mike Parson’s administration. I am happy that he is looking at an issue that needs long-term attention from both sides of the aisle; Missourians across the state need to stand up and fight for a better future.

With an eye to the future, we need to remember that today’s elementary and secondary students are tomorrow’s workforce. Creating an open, high-quality K-12 education system is critical to the revitalization of our workforce pipeline. School choice can play a critical role in that process, by ensuring that students have access to high-quality schools that meet their individual needs and interests and help the build the critically important skills necessary to succeed in a 21st century economy.

Missouri is taking some small steps toward a more open and choice-friendly education system. Last year, the Legislature passed a law allowing for the creation of virtual schools. As a result, parents can access online education through the Missouri Course Access Program and the Missouri Online Summer Institute. We can, and should, go further to expand the school choice options available to Missouri families. Legislation that would encourage, assist, and allow the formation of high quality charter schools or expanding access to private schools throughout the state would be a giant leap forward.

This year the Missouri Legislature will consider creating an Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESAs), a school choice program that has been successful in the six states that have already created this innovative program.

ESAs provide parents with a tax-credit funded scholarship, allowing them to use those funds to finance the educational option—or options—best suited to that child. They give parents the maximum amount of flexibility to construct a curricular program that best meets their child’s needs. Parents can use ESAs to fund one-on-one tutoring, supplemental online courses, tuition at a private school—or all of the above.

As the parent of special needs adult, I would have found ESAs particularly helpful in designing programs for our son. In many states, these accounts allow parents to provide their children with a personalized and focused curriculum. These programs give the people who know the children best – the parents – the power to pick an education that will be best for them.

This National School Choice Week, parents, educators, and students will gather at more than 40,000 events nationwide the week of Jan. 20-26. At these events, children will speak to the way that school choice has improved their lives, and their education. In many cases, school choice will spark in children a deep love of learning—a love that can stay with them for their entire lives—while also giving them hope for a better future.

Here in Missouri, we can celebrate our accomplishments. But we will also rededicate our commitment to giving every student the opportunity to receive a quality education regardless of their zip code. With the state economy facing long-term challenges, we could all benefit from more high quality charter schools, Educational Savings Accounts, and other forms of educational opportunity right here to Missouri. Such reforms could bring much needed economic growth—and hope—back to our state.

Brian Murphy is president of the CEAM Board and owns BAM Contracting, a construction company with offices in St. Louis and Kansas City.

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