July 15 2013

Missouri Enacts School Choice

Vicki E. Alger

Last week Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon signed Bryce’s Law. As The St. Louis Post Dispatch reports:

[The bill] seeks to set up scholarships to help special-needs children get services from private facilities or other public schools.

The measure requires the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to seek grants and donations to be used for the scholarships. The measure, called ‘Bryce's Law,’ is named after the 6-year-old autistic grandson of the legislation's sponsor, House member Dwight Scharnhorst. Bryce died of epilepsy in 2007.

Adopted as part of a larger education bill, Bryce’s Law authorizes the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to seek grants and donations to be used for scholarships so special needs children can attend the public or private school that works best for them. The program is limited to students with autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, Angelman syndrome or cerebral palsy.

Similar bills have been introduced over the past eight years. Previous plans were introduced as publicly-funded vouchers, as well as privately-funded tax-credit scholarships. However, opponents (wrongly) claimed vouchers and tax-credits were unconstitutional.

Bryce’s Law stands out because the state education department—rather than non-profit scholarship-granting organizations—is responsible for securing public funding for the program. How this arrangement will work depends on the department’s openness to parental choice. Rep. Scharnhorst explained:

It’s somewhat of a mandate to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to seek and secure federal and state [funding], and I will be seeking on my own private foundation money, to form a pool of money for parents who decide they want to move these children out of a public school and put them in the institutions that could probably best suit improving their quality of life as well as their family.

It’s a sad state of affairs when parental choice has to be mandated, and when private philanthropy has to be somehow “legitimized” with public state and federal tax dollars. Hopefully, the program lasts long enough so that funding this program can be moved from the public to the private sphere—where education as a whole belongs.

Currently, 250,000 students nationwide are benefiting from parental choice programs. Specifically, there are19 voucher scholarship programs in 12 states and Washington, D.C., 16 tax-credit scholarship programs in 13 states, and one educational savings account (ESA) in Arizona is serving more than 360 students. With Missouri’s new program the number of parental choice programs nationwide now stands at 35.

 

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