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Commentary: A real choice for students in unaccredited districts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Everyone knows the old adage, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.” However, the Missouri Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the school transfer law has proven that it is quite possible to displease people on all sides of an issue at the same time.

Suburban districts do not want to be overrun with students fleeing the failing school districts. The unaccredited districts are worried that high tuition rates for departing students will bankrupt their districts. Meanwhile, many parents with children trapped in failing schools are dismayed at the prospect of having them bused to new schools more than 20 miles from home.

If nothing else, the almost universal unhappiness about the situation should propel the search for better ways of providing improved educational options for all involved.

There are no cure-all solutions, but one promising idea that has produced excellent results in other states is a scholarship program. Individuals and corporations fund these programs and receive state tax credits for their donations. A common credit amount is 75 percent, which means a donation of $1,000 to a scholarship would earn the donor a credit (not just a tax deduction, but an actual credit) of $750 toward his or her income taxes.

Eleven states have created a program like this. Some are small, such as in Rhode Island, which serves a few hundred students. Some are large, such as Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program, which serves more than 40,000 students. Some states target scholarships to low-income students. Other states, like Indiana, make scholarships available for middle-class families as well. Missouri lawmakers floated an idea like that in the past, and it seems they are looking at this type of program again. In a recent radio appearance, House Majority Floor Leader John Diehl mentioned that private school options should be on the table.

There are several clear advantages to this approach.

First, a scholarship program maximizes individual choice; it allows students and their parents to pick the school they want, whether public or private.

Second, in providing access to a greater number of schools, a scholarship program lessens the outsized impact on a few suburban schools, which attract unusually large numbers of transfer students.

Third, a scholarship program would eliminate the financial trauma that school districts like Normandy and Riverview Gardens now are feeling from having to pay tuition and transportation costs between $10,000 and $20,000 for each transferring student.

Last, a scholarship program would provide greater certainty to all parties – beginning with the students themselves. Each scholarship recipient would have the ease of mind knowing he could continue at his school of choice until graduation – without having to worry that he could be forced to return to his district of residence if it becomes reaccredited.

An abundance of research shows that students benefit from greater school choice. More surprisingly, there is good evidence that students who remain behind in their district-run schools also benefit. In response to the current transfer mess, Normandy Superintendent Tyrone McNichols stated, “I see it as an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to make a difference on a school district that has challenges.” That is the beauty of school choice; it prompts struggling schools to improve with the “fierce urgency of now.”

A tax credit scholarship could potentially be a win-win for everyone. It would expand options for students, ease the burden on accredited districts, and reduce the financial strain on unaccredited districts and taxpayers. No other solution promises as much.

James V. Shuls is the education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.

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