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Opinion: Some education reform policies are great for rural schools — so why are they complaining?


Last week, the Missouri House passed historic legislation to provide scholarships to students in urban areas to flee school districts that aren’t meeting their needs.

These Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or ESAs, have been successfully adopted in many other states. The scholarships are funded by donations from Missouri taxpayers who receive a benevolent tax credit in return.

State Rep. Chad Perkins

The bill is limited to students living in Clay, Jackson, Jefferson, St. Louis, and St. Charles counties, as well as the cities of Cape Girardeau, Columbia, Jefferson City, Joplin, Springfield, and St. Joseph. Priority will be given to students with special needs and/or those who come from low-income households.

To help ease the financial burden in any school system where enrollment might drop, public school districts will be “held harmless” for the first five years of the program. I’m not sure this is a great policy versus just allowing the free market to work itself out there, but it is a part of the bill that I ultimately supported.

In addition, ALL Missouri schools will see an increase in transportation funding if the current version of the legislation becomes law. 

Gov. Mike Parson recommended 34 percent funding for the total cost of transportation at public school districts — but this bill won’t go into effect unless appropriators boost that number to 40 percent, which is a significant amount of money for rural schools.

In addition, the scholarship program is one of more than two dozen like it in the U.S., but this one is unique in that students wishing to leave their local school district can choose a different district, public charter, private, or homeschool. In other states, this option of leaving one district school to go to another is not available.

The estimated 8,000 scholarship recipients will take standardized tests to ensure that the program is working and working well. This is a major part of the bill’s accountability standards.

I have had some folks reach out to me saying that legislation that impacts so few students in so few parts of our state will “end public education” in Missouri. This seems to be a bit of an exaggeration, even before you add in the transportation funding and hold harmless amendments to the bill.

The program will cost the state $50 million, but it will not come out of the formula that funds schools. If folks believe that all expenditures from General Revenue always mean less for education, then they should tell one of the state’s largest teacher unions, Missouri NEA. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to pass Medicaid expansion in Missouri. Some estimate its cost to be at least $200 million annually.

Giving a chance to kids stuck in a district that doesn’t meet their needs seems like a huge win for taxpayers and families. This program is limited and small, and the legislation also helps our rural schools. 

We could just ignore that there are students in Missouri that are falling behind, or we can be leaders and do something about it.