Local school officials say ‘school choice’ program is helping them stay afloat

In recent years, the term “school choice” has been making waves, and in Missouri, it’s more than just a buzzword – it’s now a reality.
Published: Sep. 18, 2023 at 6:20 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - In recent years, the term “school choice” has been making waves, and in Missouri, it’s more than just a buzzword – it’s now a reality. A new law in the Show-Me State allows the redirecting of tax dollars to grant parents greater flexibility in choosing private schools for their children.

Izzy Uccello, a middle school student, is just like many of her peers. Her favorite class is gym, and her friends are the best part of school. However, Izzy faces unique challenges; she uses a wheelchair due to Spina Bifida.

Becki Uccello, her mother, explained, “She is not at the same level as her typical peers. She’s had some learning delays and some learning disabilities.”

Becki, a former teacher, felt that the public school system wasn’t the right fit for Izzy.

“In public schools, she was pulled out of class at least 30% of the day. She wasn’t with her classmates. Izzy is very social, and she learns from being with her friends. She just wants to feel like she’s part of that group,” Becki shared.

So, the Uccellos made a decision and enrolled Izzy at St. Agnes, a Catholic school in Springfield, where she thrived. However, this educational choice came at a steep price.

Becki recalled, “I had two to three part-time jobs to cover her tuition.”

Now, under the Missouri Scholars program, she no longer has to.

Jean Evans, a former lawmaker who now leads the Missouri Federation for Children, and families like the Uccellos have long advocated for “school choice,” believing that parents should have the freedom to choose the best educational option for their children.

Jean explained, “The government doesn’t tell you where to send your child to daycare. They don’t tell you what hospital or pediatrician to take your child to. We think that parents should decide what is the best fit for their students.”

In 2021, Missouri introduced its version of “school choice” known as the Missouri Scholars Program. It’s entirely based on Missouri tax credits.

“Mo Scholars is unique in that it’s completely funded by Missouri tax credits,” Jean emphasized.

Under the Missouri Scholars Program, individuals or businesses can donate to a scholarship fund and receive a 100% state tax credit for their contribution. The donated funds are then distributed, providing approximately $6,400 annually to families moving their children from public to private schools. Currently, the program only benefits low-income families and children with special needs in urban areas.

Jean Evans believes this is a step towards equalizing educational opportunities.

“People who are wealthy already have school choice; they can decide where to send their students, homeschool, or choose tutoring or boarding school. But working-class and middle-income families don’t have those same opportunities. We want everyone to have that opportunity.”

Not everyone is on board with the school choice program. Jessica Levin, representing Public Funds Public Schools, vehemently opposes these initiatives. She argues that private schools, the vast majority of which are religious, can be highly selective and may allow discrimination on several bases protected in public schools, such as religion, disability, LGBTQ+ status, academic performance, and past disciplinary history. Levin also disputes the claim that private schools lead to better educational outcomes, insisting that public schools should instead be better funded.

Evans counters these arguments, stating that there is no data to support them. She points out that despite increased spending, some public schools in St. Louis are not seeing improved outcomes.

The program is not thriving as some of it’s supporters would like.

Last school year, the program awarded more than 1,360 scholarships, but this school year, that number dropped to 824. Furthermore, donations are down a whopping 65%, plummeting from over $9 million last year to just over $3.1 million this year.

To address this decline in donations and awareness of the program, Missouri State Treasurer Vivek Malek is taking action.

“Right now, we are playing catch-up because tax season doesn’t end till December. And school starts in August. So there is a gap,” he explained.

To bridge this gap, the program invested $50,000 in a statewide public service announcement (PSA) campaign. Vivek reports that since the PSA aired, they’ve received about a million dollars in donations. An immigrant with multiple degrees, Vivek Malek is a strong advocate for the program, committed to its growth.

Missouri’s school choice program has ignited debates about the future of education in the state. While advocates argue that it empowers parents and equalizes opportunities, critics contend that it may harm public schools and promote discrimination. The program’s fate remains uncertain, but one thing is clear: it’s sparking conversations about the best path forward for Missouri’s students.

Do you want read more of the research on these programs for yourself? Click here and here