Missouri school choice expansion bill heads to governor

Whitefield Academy in St. Louis, Missouri, is one of more than 690 private schools in the state.

The Missouri Legislature sent to Gov. Mike Parson on Thursday a bill that would create empowerment scholarship accounts, dramatically expanding the state’s school choice program by allowing more than 7,000 public school students to attend private schools.

Under HB 349, up to $50 million in tax credits could be claimed annually for the program. The cap eventually will be lifted to $75 million a year.

The accounts can be used to help pay tuition, textbooks, tutoring services and other school-related costs.

“This provides another option for kids who may need that option,” said Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester. “The reality is every child is different, and we don’t know what that child needs but parents do. It could be a child is in a great school but they’re getting bullied, and they need a different environment. Who knows what the needs of that child are?”

School choice advocates, including Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri director Peter Franzen, argued the ESA program would benefit low-and-middle-income families who will now have an option if they are unhappy with their children’s public schools.

“This is a historic day for Missouri children,” Franzen said. “COVID has really shined a light on this. I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand and interest.”

An earlier version of the bill allowed scholarship accounts statewide, but after meeting resistance, the proposal was scaled back to apply only to students in counties and cities with more than 30,000 people.

Missouri Senate majority leader Caleb Rowden signaled that more education choice legislation is to come.

“Today my Republican colleagues came together to deliver a decisive victory for Missouri children,” Rowden said. “HB 349 provides targeted empowerment scholarships for the neediest children and ties program enrollment to public school funding increases. This is a win for Missouri kids and Missouri education – and we’re just getting started.”