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Opinion: Show students better educational choices


By Rachelle Engen

As the “Show-Me” state, Missouri has a long history of demonstrating to the rest of the nation the best way of doing things. It is now time for the state to lead the way in educational choice and show its students more educational options.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to education. Our antiquated approach of assigning students to schools based on their zip codes is a well-known recipe for dissatisfaction since it is essentially random and does not consider individual student need. Moreover, it discriminates against the poor because only people who are wealthier can freely move or pay for private school. As a result, our current system only allows those students whose families can afford another option to have a way out of the current public school system.

This year, the Missouri legislature is considering a bill that would fix this dynamic by creating the state’s first educational choice program. Educational choice gives parents the ability to tailor their child’s schooling to best suit their individual needs. If this bill passes, it would create a statewide Educational Savings Account (ESA) program. ESAs allow parents to remove their child from their assigned public school and have the designated funds deposited into an ESA. Parents can then use that money to create an education that best fits the child’s needs. ESA funds can be used on a variety of educational services including—but not limited to—textbooks, tutoring, private school tuition, and individual courses or extra-curricular activities at public and charter schools.

Implementing an ESA program in Missouri would have an immediate and profound impact on students throughout the state. A student attending a public school in St. Louis that isn’t right for him would be able to attend a private school that is a better fit. A special needs student in Springfield would be able to leave her public school and receive an education tailored for her. A student being bullied in her assigned school in Kansas City could be educated online at home where she would be able to focus on her schoolwork.

Students who are able to choose don’t just attend better schools; they actually do better at school. To date, 18 studies have examined academic outcomes for school choice participants using random assignment, the gold standard in research. The large majority found statistically significant positive effects. In Arizona, the first state to implement an ESA program, academic gains on national test scores showed that robust choice helps improve student achievement. Educational choice programs also positively correlate high school graduation rates, college enrollment, civic engagement, and parent and student satisfaction rates.

Missouri can and should be a national leader by providing its students the opportunity to choose an education that will empower them for decades to come. By passing legislation to allow families without the economic means to otherwise pursue educational choice, Missouri will ensure all students have access to a quality education that works best for them regardless of their families’ economic backgrounds.

Rachelle Engen serves as the Educational Choice Fellow at the Institute for Justice where she helps ensure families have the right to control their own destinies by means of educational choice.