State Policy Network
Case Study: How Show-Me Institute gave children a brighter future through Missouri’s first school choice program

Most Missouri families only have one education option available to them: public school. For some students, public school is a great fit. They are happy with the school’s curriculum and are thriving in that environment.

But thousands of others are struggling. These families may live in a district with a low-performing school. They may be bullied and want to attend a different school. Or they may have a disability and need one-on-one attention that their public school, through no fault of its own, can’t provide. While families with more money can afford to send their child to private school, lower-income families don’t have the means to do that. These families are trapped.

The Show-Me Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization in Saint Louis, wanted to give all Missouri families—regardless of income—the opportunity to receive a quality education that fits their unique needs. One way to reach that goal is through Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)—or state funds that parents can use to pay for a wide variety of education options, including private school or homeschool. Sometimes called “Empowerment Accounts,” these programs enable parents to make the best educational choices for their children.

Show-Me has tried for years to get Missouri to adopt an ESA program, to no avail.

In May 2021, Show-Me’s campaign finally paid off, and Missouri took a historic step toward education freedom. Thanks to the Show-Me Institute and a coalition of partners, Missouri passed a law that creates the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) program, or tax-credit scholarships, that families can use for education-related expenses.

Let’s take a look at how Show-Me’s persistent efforts promoting ESAs culminated in the passage of Missouri’s first school choice program.

2012: Show-Me starts building support for education options in a school choice desert

The Show-Me Institute has promoted ESAs in Missouri since 2012. Through research, hundreds of blog posts, essays, and testimony, the organization made the case to fund students instead of systems. The campaign has been difficult, and Show-Me faced significant challenges along the way—particularly with the state’s education establishment.

Missouri is very rural, and the state has a plethora of public school districts relative to its size. Most states have around 321; Missouri has 520. Because there are so many districts, the state also has several superintendents and school boards. They form a powerful group and generally like to keep the state’s education system at status quo. They are cautious to introduce new education alternatives and often pressure lawmakers to maintain the current state of affairs where Missouri families have one option: their public school.

2013-2019: School choice bills fail repeatedly in Missouri Legislature

From 2013-2019, the Missouri Legislature introduced several parental choice bills. These bills allowed special needs students to attend private schools, created Empowerment Scholarship Accounts so families could pay for education expenses, and expanded charter schools, among other reforms. All of them failed, but each year the bills made it one step closer to passing.

James V. Shuls, a distinguished fellow in education policy at the Show-Me Institute explained:

“For many years, there would be a bill, and it wouldn’t get a hearing—because leadership would assign it to a committee chair, and the committee wouldn’t hear it. And then we got to a point where they [lawmakers] started having hearings on the bill. And then they [lawmakers] wouldn’t bring it up for a vote. Or they would bring it up for a vote and it would get voted down. And that’s been the evolution over time­—then it gets voted out of committee, but never brought up on the floor. In the past two years [2018 and 2019] it’s gotten out of committee, to the floor, but then it gets filibustered, so nothing happens.”

Show-Me continued working to give parents the education options they want and need. Then, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity emerged from an unlikely source—the coronavirus.

Summer 2020: Coronavirus exposes the problems with one-size-fits all education

In response to the pandemic, schools across the country closed their doors and sent millions of children home for virtual learning—or in some cases, no learning at all. Parents, on top of jobs and other responsibilities, now had to manage their child’s education.

As school closures continued into the fall, many parents were dissatisfied with their child’s virtual learning environment. After months of learning behind a screen, many children were experiencing learning loss and longed for the peer interaction that a traditional school provides. Some parents took their child’s learning into their own hands and organized learning pods or started homeschooling their children.

The prolonged school closures and disruption to education revealed the power public school districts have over the lives of American families. The district’s decision to open or remain closed, continue virtual learning, or nothing at all—deeply affected American families. Millions started to question if a one-size-fits-all education system is the best approach. All families are different, and they all have different opinions on how a school should operate. Some families were comfortable returning to in-person school, while others were hesitant about the health risks of the virus.

Parents across the country, and especially in Missouri, wanted education options.

Summer 2020: State Policy Network and Show-Me Institute organize Missouri coalition

In the summer of 2020, State Policy Network and the Show-Me Institute convened and discussed opportunities for advancing a school choice program in Missouri. The state showed great promise for adoption of more education options.

SPN and Show-Me identified and brought together other groups working on school choice in Missouri: ExcelinEd, the American Federation for Children, EdChoice, the National Coalition for Public School Options, the Missouri Century Foundation, CEAM, and other local groups.

SPN served as the coalition leader for these groups to come together on a regular basis. SPN brainstormed what the various groups could do to influence lawmakers and run an effective public campaign in support of an ESA bill. 

Fall 2020: Show-Me offers education solutions during the coronavirus

Throughout the fall, dozens of Missouri school districts switched back and forth from in-person learning to remote. Parents were frustrated.

The Show-Me Institute listened to these parents’ concerns and shared polling and surveys that indicated parents’ desire for more options. During the difficult times of the pandemic, they became a reliable resource in the state for education solutions.

Show-Me promoted Safe Student Scholarships, a type of ESA, as a way to empower parents to choose the education that best fits their needs. Students would apply to scholarship-granting organizations and receive funds to pay for education-related expenses such as online learning, tutoring, or private tuition. This process would help public schools as they braced for budget shortfalls, because a school district would no longer have to pay for that child’s education once they left that school. It would likewise help private schools, which were struggling because many parents had lost jobs and couldn’t make tuition payments.

Show-Me also encouraged policymakers to let families enroll in the Missouri Course Access Program (MOCAP), the state’s online learning program, without having to get permission first.

Through blog posts and op-eds, Show-Me reiterated how important it is for Missouri to provide education options to every family. They explained what school choice is and how it helps children. They provided resources for parents on their website on schooling options. And they encouraged lawmakers to allow funding to follow the child.

December 2020: State Policy Network polling gives insight into Missouri parents’ attitudes toward education during the pandemic

In December, State Policy Network commissioned market research to understand how Missouri parents were feeling about education during the coronavirus. The poll found a growing dissatisfaction with education quality and learning experiences among Missouri parents.

Notably, the poll found 52 percent of Missouri parents support letting families use a portion of students’ state education funding for school choice programs like home, virtual, or private education. The Show-Me Institute shared this polling with the public and lawmakers to show the growing appetite for parental choice. Susan Pendergrass, Show-Me’s director of research and education policy added: “We used those numbers over and over.”

SPN also created content for the coalition to use with lawmakers, including a rural one pager on how ESAs benefit rural communities. 

January 2021: Show-Me holds legislator training on school choice programs

As the 2021 legislative session approached, the coalition knew that several lawmakers on key committees were friendly to school choice. Given the favorable committee makeup and parents’ attitudes toward education after the coronavirus, Show-Me and the coalition believed 2021 was the year to finally advance a program that gives families more education choice. Pendergrass added: “We knew this was our one shot.”

As the session began, some lawmakers were hesitant to adopt an ESA program in Missouri. They wanted information on how ESAs work, what other states have them, and what a program would mean for school funding. These lawmakers also wanted reassurance that parents want and need an ESA program. To address these concerns and help lawmakers, Show-Me held legislator training in January 2021.

February 2021: Missouri Legislature introduces school choice legislation

In February, policymakers considered giving parents more choice through Senate Bill 296, which would create an ESA program in Missouri. Show-Me submitted testimony on the bill and argued such a program would help all students thrive. In the Kansas City Star, Show-Me refuted misleading claims that the legislation would defund public schools.

Although SB 296 did not pass, Show-Me was encouraged that legislators were considering school choice legislation. And more legislation was on the way.

March 2021: Missouri takes historic step to fund students

In a historic vote, the House Education Committee passed a tax credit scholarship bill, called HB 349, and sent it to the Senate. HB 349 would create the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program, a type of ESA that Missouri parents can use to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, virtual education, microschools, or educational therapies. The scholarship-granting organizations could raise up to $50 million, and the people who donate to the scholarship program would receive a 100 percent tax credit based on their donation amount.

The program allows low-income students and students with disabilities who live in an area with more than 30,000 residents to access the scholarships. Families in rural communities won’t be able to access the program. During legislative debate on the bill, rural legislators indicated they didn’t want the program offered to the people in their district. These lawmakers often have strong support for their local public schools and are hesitant to advance alternative education options.

On May 6, 2021, HB 349 passed, giving more education options to thousands of Missouri families. After the bill passed, Pendergrass observed: “It’s the dawning of a new era of parental empowerment in Missouri. Hopefully, this is just the beginning.”

Next up for the Show-Me Institute? Expanding the program so all Missouri families have more education choices

The Show-Me Institute is now focused on making families aware of the program and the new options that are available to them. Many parents have already reached out, asking how they can access it.

Show-Me is also working to persuade lawmakers to expand the program so all students in Missouri have the opportunity to choose the education that works best for them. Pendergrass added: “The big push for us is ensure every Missouri child has at least two options.”

Show-Me’s advice for other state think tanks: Build a strong coalition

When asked what was key to Show-Me’s success in convincing lawmakers to adopt a school choice program this session, Pendergrass pointed to the coalition it built with SPN:

“Opening the lines of communication [within the coalition] was really important. We exchanged op-eds, we cross-posted infographics, and we tried not to duplicate efforts. Show-Me provided the research, data, evidence, that sort of thing. The Missouri group CEAM are more parent-focused, so they put together a website for parents and brought parents in to give testimony. We all used our comparative advantage.”

Katherine Bathgate, Senior Policy Advisor at State Policy Network, added:

We started coalition calls in July of 2020, so we were on calls for a year together. In the beginning, it was figuring out our best path forward, what the legislation would be, etc. As we got into session and it became clear which bill was our best bet, the whole coalition rallied around it and everyone did their part.”

Show-Me encouraged other state think tanks working on education reform to find their coalition and meet regularly. Working together as a group makes it even easier to reach your policy goal.

Categories: Policy Issues
Policy Issues: K-12 Education
States: Missouri
Organization: State Policy Network