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Missouri lawmakers push bills to make it easier for parents to send kids to non-district schools

An old brick building, Gordon Parks Elementary, sits at the top of a flight of cement stairs. There is snow on the ground around the school, and trees to the left.
Zach Bauman
The Beacon
Gordon Parks Elementary School, a Kansas City charter school, is pictured Jan. 2, 2022.

Legislation prefiled for the 2023 session would expand charter schools, help parents fund private school education and give homeschoolers access to public school activities.

Once again, elementary and secondary education are commanding a lot of attention in the Missouri legislature.

And a major focus is throwing state support behind families who want to send their kids outside of their local public school district.

Often framed as ways to increase “school choice” for families, proposals to spread charter schools to more of the state, let students more easily transfer to public school districts they don’t live in or receive financial support for private school tuition and homeschooling aren’t new.

Bills on these topics tend to be sponsored by Republicans. But in the past they have met with bipartisan resistance, often sparked by concerns about the impact on traditional school districts.

Any given bill might not be heard by a committee after the legislative session starts Jan. 4, much less be debated by the full legislature or signed into law. Lawmakers can also amend bills at several points in the process.

But this list gives a sense of how Missouri representatives and senators are seeking to expand school choice initiatives.

Check in later for more roundups of K-12 bills, and see The Beacon’s roundup of higher education bills published last week.

Transferring to neighboring school districts

Typically, students can attend their local school district or charter schools for free but must pay tuition to attend another district.

Senate Bill 5, filed by Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, and House Bill 253, sponsored by Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia, seek to change that.

They would allow students to transfer to other public school districts without becoming residents. Families would be responsible for their own transportation in most cases.

Kansas recently adopted a policy that requires districts that aren’t filled to capacity to accept transfer students from other districts. Some local districts objected, arguing it would lead to overcrowding for some districts and unpredictable enrollment for others.

Under the Missouri proposals, school districts would not be required to accept students from outside of their boundaries but would opt in if interested. Districts could initially limit the percentage of students who could leave through the program, allowing the districts time to adjust to lower state funding.

MOScholars program

After Missouri launched the MOScholars program to provide private school scholarships — funded by donations eligible for tax credits — several lawmakers want to expand the program.

Currently, eligible students should be entering kindergarten or first grade, or have previously attended public school.

The scholarship is available for families who live in a charter county or in a city with a population of at least 30,000.

In the Kansas City area, that includes anyone who lives in Jackson or Clay counties, no matter the size of the city they live in. Residents of Kansas City or Lee’s Summit are also eligible even if they live outside of Jackson or Clay counties.

The program prioritizes families who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and students who have individualized education programs — tailored plans for students with special needs.

If families in those groups don’t use all of the available funding, the program opens to a second tier of families who earn under 200% of the limit for receiving free or reduced-price lunch.

The program was initially capped at $25 million, enough to cover 3,450 students annually.

Many of the proposals to expand MOScholars are being put forward by Rep. Josh Hurlbert, a Republican from Smithville. According to his LinkedIn page and other sources, Hurlbert works as a MOScholars scholarship coordinator for the Herzog Tomorrow Foundation, one of the six faith-focused organizations authorized to distribute the scholarships.

Proposals for the 2023 session include:

  • Allowing families with higher incomes to participate (Koenig’s Senate Bill 360).
  • Allowing all students living in a county with at least 100,000 residents to participate (Hurlbert’s House Bill 243).
  • Making all students in the state eligible (Hurlbert’s House Bill 242).
  • Making more students who did not previously attend public school eligible (Hurlbert’s House Bill 244).
  • Providing more avenues for students with disabilities to quality (Hurlbert’s House Bill 332).
  • Expanding the dollar amount students in specific categories can receive (House Bill 350, sponsored by Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters).

Legislation for homeschooled students

Hurlbert also sponsored legislation — House Bill 241 — to require school districts to allow homeschooled students to try out for their activities and sports. Sen. Jill Carter, R-Joplin, filed similar legislation, Senate Bill 230.

Under the proposals, school districts could not turn away homeschooled students on their own initiative or belong to an activities association that requires homeschooled students to take classes in order to participate — aside from a single class directly related to the activity.

Charter schools

Lawmakers are once again attempting to expand charter schools throughout more of the state.

Senate Bill 304, sponsored by Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, would allow charter schools anywhere in a charter county — such as Jackson County — and in municipalities with more than 30,000 people. House Bill 158, sponsored by Rep. Michael O’Donnell, R-St. Louis County, does the same.

Charter schools are independent public schools that are free for students to attend, but not part of the traditional local school district. They are exempt from some regulations that apply to traditional public schools.

Except for under limited circumstances, they are currently allowed only within Kansas City Public Schools and the St. Louis school district.

KCPS has cooperated with charter schools and serves as a sponsor for several. But some see charter schools as competitors with the district and blame them for pulling thousands of students away, helping lead to a situation where KCPS is considering closing schools.

Allowing parents sweeping control over education funding

Senate Bill 81, sponsored by Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, would create a refundable tax credit covering all eligible homeschooling expenses. The proposal would also allow parents to direct the state funding for their child — which would normally be allocated to their public school district — to any eligible private, public, charter or virtual school.

Senate Bill 226, sponsored by Sen. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, would create a refundable tax credit for 100% of tuition parents pay for private school or a public school outside their home district.

This story was originally published by the Kansas City Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.
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