ESAs in Missouri: A “Barren” School Choice Landscape

This is the first in a three-part series that looks at education savings accounts in Missouri and how they could empower every family and improve student outcomes.

Where Things Stand in the Show-Me State

School choice has seen tremendous progress over the past two decades. What began modestly in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1991 with a voucher program for children from low-income families has blossomed into a movement that’s going strong in more than half the states.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case in Missouri, though lawmakers have tried to enact options that would empower parents with the ability to choose the best educational setting for their kids.

In 2014, the state legislature approved a program that would allow students in unaccredited public schools the opportunities to use their public funds to attend a private option, but this was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon (D).

In 2016, the House and the Senate Education and Jobs committee passed a tax credit-funded education savings account (ESA) program for students with special needs. This bill failed to pass the Senate.

School choice programs often take years to develop, garner support and become law. This series looks at the state of play in Missouri—and why the state would be well suited to move toward an education savings account (ESA) program as it takes up the issue again in the coming year.

In 2011, Arizona became the first state to enact education savings accounts (ESAs), refining the concept of school choice by enabling families to direct their children’s share of education funding to multiple education services, providers, and products of choice, instead of to a single school of choice. Five states now offer ESAs to eligible families, with Nevada’s near-universal ESA option marking a watershed moment for school choice with its introduction in 2015.

Today, Missouri’s barren landscape of educational choice makes the Show Me State long overdue for an embrace of choice in education. Offering every child in Missouri the option to access an education savings account would mean empowering families with the ability to craft a customized education plan that meets the unique learning needs of every student in the state.

Although students in Missouri have made some strides in academic achievement over the past decade, achievement gaps in reading and mathematics persist between low-income students and their more affluent peers. Gaps also persist in the academic attainment (graduation) rates of white and minority students, and between low-income students and those from families that are not low-income. We will explore these data in the second post in this series.

Beyond academic factors, establishing a system of ESAs that are universally available to all Missouri children would mediate other problems the Show Me State will face in coming years, such as a simultaneous increase in the K–12 student population and older retirees, creating demographic “strain” at both ends of the age spectrum—a phenomenon we explore in our second post in this series.

Ever-increasing per-pupil spending also suggests efforts are needed to ensure dollars are going to students for educational options that work for them, instead of the current one-size-fits-all system that is overdue for reform. State finances, long-term planning and how ESAs can help will be the topic of our third post in this series.

We Already Know Choice Works

A growing body of empirical evidence suggests school choice can significantly improve academic attainment outcomes for participants, and can have positive impacts on academic achievement. School choice also confers positive benefits to the public school system, which responds to the competitive pressure placed on it by surrounding private schooling options.

In a 2016 meta-analysis of 100 empirical studies of school choice, researcher Greg Forster found that to date:

  • Eighteen empirical studies have examined academic outcomes for school choice participants using random assignment, the gold standard of social science. Of those, 14 find choice improves student outcomes: six find all students benefit and eight find some benefit and some are not visibly affected. Two studies find no visible effect, and two studies find Louisiana’s voucher program—where most of the eligible private schools were scared away from the program by an expectation of hostile future action from regulators—had a negative effect.
  • Thirty-three empirical studies (including all methods) have examined school choice’s effect on students’ academic outcomes in public schools. Of those, 31 find choice improved public schools. One finds no visible effect. One finds a negative effect.
  • Twenty-eight empirical studies have examined school choice’s fiscal impact on taxpayers and public schools. Of these, 25 find school choice programs save money. Three find the programs they study are revenue neutral. No empirical study has found a negative fiscal impact.
  • Ten empirical studies have examined school choice and racial segregation in schools. Of those, nine find school choice moves students from more segregated schools into less segregated schools, and one finds no net effect on segregation. No empirical study has found that choice increases racial segregation.

Missouri is Ripe for Reform

We know and will probe deeper in the next two posts that Missouri is ripe for reform. So why hasn’t it happened? The history of such efforts sheds light on the lack of progress over the past several decades. Suburban policymakers have tended to favor school choice options, but such policies have enjoyed less robust support from rural areas.

Moreover, an education lobby consisting of teachers’ unions, associations of administrators and superintendents has also created opposition to the expansion of educational choice in the state. A threat to the status quo in education is often portrayed as a threat to the underpinnings of rural schools.

At the same time, school choice proponents have significant room for improvement in championing school choice options to rural communities in Missouri. Initiatives like course access programs are beginning to change that paradigm, bringing options to rural areas where the educational choice landscape was once barren. The legislature also passed a small voucher program as part of the “transfer” bill in 2014, but the measure was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Nixon.

As Missourians look around at their neighboring states, it quickly becomes evident that ESAs are taking root as a worthwhile means of providing choice in education. Tennessee adopted ESAs – known as IEAs in that state – in 2015, and Oklahoma and Texas are likely to consider the option in their coming legislative sessions. Looking beyond neighboring states, Arizona, Nevada, Florida, and Mississippi have all established ESAs, with Nevada breaking new ground in 2015 by becoming the first state to do a near-universal option. Missouri has the opportunity to be a part of the vanguard of ESA adopters, and in so doing, ensure every child can tailor an education to their needs that is as unique as they are.

In our next post in this series, we’ll examine why Missouri students would benefit from school choice and an ESA program. Our final post will provide best practices to policymakers — not just in Missouri —  for putting together an ESA that truly empowers parents and help students.


To read the second in this three-part series, visit “ESAs in Missouri: Why Things Need To Change.”

To read the third post in this series, visit “ESAs in Missouri: Designing What Works For Parents and the State Budget.”


*Opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of EdChoice.