Research & Commentary: Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Are a Great Fit for Missouri Families

Published February 6, 2020

Legislation introduced in the Missouri House of Representatives would create a program providing Missouri children with access to education savings accounts (ESA): the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program.

With an ESA, state education funds allocated for a child are placed in a parent-controlled savings account. Parents then use a state-provided debit card to access the funds to pay for the resources chosen for their child’s unique educational program. Under the proposed program, ESAs could be used to pay for tuition and fees at private and parochial schools, as well as textbooks, tutoring services, computer hardware, summer education programs, and educational therapies. The ESAs could also be used to cover the fees required to take national standardized achievement tests, such as the SAT or ACT.

Funds for the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program would be provided in a way that is similar to how tax-credit scholarship programs are funded. Individuals and businesses would receive a tax credit equal to 100 percent of the amount of a contribution made to fund the program, so long as the claimed tax credit does not exceed 50 percent of the taxpayer’s liability for the tax year for which the credit is claimed. These contributions and the ESA accounts they fund would be managed by state-sanctioned “educational assistance organizations.” The state would cap the maximum amount of contributions to the program at $50 million per year. 

A Show-Me Institute analysis found an ESA program funded in the proposed fashion could save Missouri school districts up to $39 million a year with a combined state and local net fiscal impact of over $57 million in savings a year. The space for Empowerment Scholarship Account students is readily available, as another Show-Me Institute report estimates there are 28,000 open seats available in Missouri private schools.

Copious empirical research on school choice programs finds they offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs and circumstances. Moreover, these programs improve access to schools that deliver quality education inexpensively. Additionally, these programs benefit public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices.

Research also shows students attending private schools are less likely than their public school peers to experience problems such as alcohol abuse, bullying, drug use, fighting, gang activity, racial tension, theft, vandalism, and weapon-based threats. There is also a strong causal link suggesting private school choice programs improve the mental health of participating students.

It is probably for these reasons that ESAs are more popular with parents than ever before. The results of EdChoice’s seventh annual Schooling in America survey, released in October 2019, found 77 percent of respondents favor ESAs, up 3 percentage points from 2018. According to the survey, support for ESAs is 80 percent among Millennials, 78 percent for those with incomes under $40,000 a year, 78 percent for blacks, 79 percent for Hispanics, 78 percent among self-identified Democrats, and 77 percent among independents. Furthermore, 78 percent of public school teachers surveyed support ESA programs.

The school a child attends should not be determined solely by his or her ZIP code. However, this is currently the case for almost all Missouri children. The goal of public education in the Show Me State should be to enable all parents, no matter their income level, to choose which schools their children attend.

Public schools should not hold a monopoly on education. By implementing the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program, legislators can help ensure more Missouri children have the opportunity to attend a quality school.

The following documents provide more information about ESAs and parental choice in education.

Estimating the Fiscal Impact of a Tax-Credit Scholarship Program
Tuition tax-credit scholarship programs grant tax credits to individuals or corporations that donate to organizations that in turn give scholarships to K-12 students. Seventeen states currently have tax-credit scholarship programs. This essay from the Show-Me Institute examines the possible fiscal impact of such a program in Missouri.

Available Seats 2.0: Opportunities Abound with School Choice
This Show-Me Institute report estimate that there are more than 28,000 available seats in Missouri’s currently-operating private schools and that a well-designed private school choice program could save the state a significant amount of money.

Condition of Education in Missouri: 2019
This Show-Me Institute booklet contains 28 indicators with the latest data available on Missouri elementary and secondary education.

The 123s of School Choice
This report from EdChoice is an in-depth review of the available research on private school choice programs in America. Areas of study include: private school choice program participant test scores, program participant attainment, parent satisfaction, public school students’ test scores, civic values and practices, racial/ethnic integration and fiscal effects.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by EdChoice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

2019 Schooling in America Survey: Public Opinion on K–12 Education, Busing, Technology, and School Choice
This annual survey from EdChoice reports polling results based on a nationally representative sample of the general public, with more robust samples of parents, current public school teachers, Millennials and Generation Z than in previous editions. The survey asks  standard questions about schooling experiences and educational choice reforms, as well as hot-button K–12 subjects that seem to polarize lawmakers and advocates, including inter-district busing, teacher protests and children’s use of technology.

Child Safety Accounts: Protecting Our Children through Parental Freedom
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Vicki Alger, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and research fellow at the Independent Institute, and Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson detail the prevalence of bullying, harassment, and assault taking place in America’s public schools and the difficulties for parents in having their child moved from a school that is unsafe for them. Alger and Benson propose a Child Safety Account program, which would allow parents to immediately have their child moved to a safe school – private, parochial, or pub­lic – as soon as parents feel the public school their child is currently attending is too dangerous to their child’s physical or emotion­al health.

The Public Benefit of Private Schooling: Test Scores Rise When There Is More of It
This Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute examines the effect increased access to private schooling has had on international student test scores in 52 countries. The Cato researchers found that a 1 percentage point increase in the share of private school enrollment would lead to moderate increases in students’ math, reading, and science achievement.

The Effects of School Choice on Mental Health
This study from Corey DeAngelis at the Cato Institute and Angela K. Dills of Western Carolina University empirically examines the relationship between school choice and mental health. It finds that states adopting broad-based voucher programs and charter schools witness declines in adolescent suicides and suggests that private schooling reduces the number of times individuals are seen for mental health issues.

Competition: For the Children
This study from the Texas Public Policy Foundation claims universal school choice results in higher test scores for students remaining in traditional public schools and improved high school graduation rates.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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