COVID-19 Spurs College Alternative Laws — Missouri, Four Different States Move Schooling Financial savings Account Payments

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AAs the new school year begins, much of the national focus is on mask requirements and how aspects of US history are taught. But beyond the limelight, the topic of school choice is slowly gaining acceptance as seven states enact laws this year to help parents at least partially fund their children’s education outside of public schools.

The turmoil caused when the pandemic forced classes to go online made the idea of ​​educational savings accounts much more acceptable than before, said Michelle Exstrom, program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures. As options like homeschooling and learning pods gained popularity, parents and lawmakers “opened their eyes to different choices.”

“Some states that have been working on it for some time have made progress in 2021,” said Exstrom. “It’s definitely a priority for Republican decision makers.”

“It was a happy coincidence of factors,” said Patrick Wolf, professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas. “In those states that have failed to pass laws in the past,” there was an opportunity to move forward.

Of the seven states that first passed school election laws this year – Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Arkansas, and Ohio – five have set up education savings accounts that parents can use to get government funds or tax credits to use for private school tuition, tutoring , Advice, transportation or other educational needs.

Tax-credit scholarships are the most common form of private school election program held in 21 states. As of this year’s legislation, 10 states now have ESAs, eight of which are funded by direct government funding and two by tax credits. “ESAs are the future of private school choice,” said Wolf. “It is the model that offers maximum adaptability.”

Missouri lawmakers had tried to pass a law that would allow ESAs for 15 years. Though the state is solidly Republican, with large majorities in both the House and Senate, the proposals have never advanced, held back by objections to public spending on private schools and the potential impact on the state’s rural areas.

But 2021 was different.

“The past year has been difficult for everyone, but especially for families with children in school,” Senator Andrew Koenig wrote on his website after the bill was passed. “The students were forced to stay at home and study on a computer screen, and their education suffered. Parents and students deserve the opportunity to find the best educational opportunities for their children, regardless of whether they can afford these educational costs. “

Still, it wasn’t easy for State Rep. Phil Christofanelli to get HB349 over the finish line. While Republicans make up 70 percent of the US House of Representatives, 29 of those MPs voted against the law. Ultimately, Christofanelli and supporters agreed to reduce the proposed $ 50 million program to $ 25 million and limit participation to communities with populations of 30,000 and more. This excludes students in about 30 percent of the most rural areas in the state. The program could begin accepting applications in August 2022. Up to 4,000 students can initially receive ESA vouchers.

Missouri donors can fund an Empowerment Scholarship account for tax deduction. These funds will be counted as a direct tax credit for half of the donor’s state taxes owed, meaning residents who owe $ 10,000 can use half of their tax bill for education by donating $ 5,000 to an ESA, instead of paying the full amount to the treasury. Funds can then be distributed to students’ families based on a number of guidelines. Children with special needs are given top priority in these grants – each of which is likely to represent about $ 6,300 or half of the state grant per student – followed by students from low-income families.

ESAs “usually start small and tight, and when people see the success of the program they almost always become politically popular and expand. I would just take this as a start, ”Christofanelli told St. Louis Public Radio earlier this summer. The new law stipulates that the cap of $ 25 million should increase with the rate of inflation up to $ 50 million.

Wolf pointed out that Milwaukee’s school election program began in 1990 with a limit of 500 students. Almost 30,000 students in the city now use scholarship vouchers for tax credit. By making eligibility broad and limiting funding, Missouri lawmakers have “mechanisms to generate political pressure” to push for expansion, he added.


Barnard: The choice of school should be more than an escape route from failing public schools. So you can make it available to all families

The potential of the ESAs to displace students from urban schools is a cause for concern in cities where student numbers are already declining. For example, St. Louis public schools have seen a steady decline in enrollments over the past decade, with student numbers falling 9 percent since the pandemic began. The district now trains approximately 18,200 students, up from 115,000 in the 1960s, and an additional 11,400 St. Louis students attend charter schools.

To address those concerns, Christofanelli said schools will not lose any government funding for at least the first five years of the program, and even if students leave a public school, they will continue to count daily attendance numbers – the measure the state takes Determines school funding. In addition, the program will come from the general government budget, not from school-specific funds.

Missouri School Boards Association executive director Melissa Randol criticized the program, saying in a statement: “This bill continues to undermine the ability to fund necessary investments in Missouri’s outstanding public schools. Missouri ranks 49th in the country for average starting teacher salaries – we need to invest in Missouri’s highly qualified teachers rather than channeling money to institutions that are not responsible to taxpayers for how they spend taxpayers’ money or how they raise our children. ”

A total of 32 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico have some kind of private school option, Wolf said. The existing laws gave new states a blueprint for craft laws that allow public funds to be used for private schools. “This is the constitutional way of providing a voucher,” said Exstrom.

Wolf said the recent wave of laws shows that ESAs are more popular than programs that offer direct government support in school choice. By including homeschooling and learning capsules, ESAs offer parents “a lot more flexibility”.


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