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Hundreds of families have already applied for new Missouri tax credit scholarships

 Missouri State Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick speaks in a classroom at a podium that says "MOScholars" at St. Cecilia Catholic School in St. Louis on Friday, July 8.
Kate Grumke / St. Louis Public Radio
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Missouri State Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick speaks at St. Cecilia Catholic School in St. Louis on Friday. Fitzpatrick is trying to get the word out about a new tax credit scholarship program.

Some Missouri parents can now apply for scholarships for their children to attend private schools or other alternatives to their local public schools. And hundreds already have.

It’s part of a new school choice program the Missouri legislature passed last year. The state just began accepting applications and donations to fund the program.

Low-income families and students with Individual Education Plans are eligible for the scholarships and could receive up to $6,375 to cover the cost of attending private schools, parochial schools or even some costs associated with virtual or home school.

Lorena Sanchez was at a press conference promoting the program last week. Her children receive scholarships to attend St. Cecilia Catholic School in the St. Louis. One of them will be eligible for this program next school year.

Sanchez said her family first looked for other school options when her eldest daughter was being bullied in public school. St. Cecilia is near where they live, and the family is Catholic, so they chose the school. Sanchez has been happy with the experience and wants the same for other families.

“It’s a great blessing for the families,” Sanchez said in Spanish. “It’s a great help and opportunity because we can have the kids in a private school.”

The program is funded with state tax credits for donations to approved organizations — which then award the scholarships.

“This is just an opportunity really for [donors] to direct how some of their tax money is going to be spent,” state Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick told St. Louis Public Radio on Friday. “It doesn't cost the donor any money to participate in the program as long as they have the tax liability to offset their donation.”

Donors can get a credit for up to 50% of their state tax liability.

Right now, only students in cities with a population of more than 30,000 or in counties with a charter form of government are eligible to participate. That includes St. Louis, St. Louis County, St. Charles County and Jefferson County, but it leaves out rural areas of the state. Fitzpatrick wants the legislature to eventually expand the program.

“There are a lot of good schools in our state, a lot of schools that meet the needs of students,” Fitzpatrick said. “But there's also a lot of kids that just aren't getting what they need at their school.”

The treasurer's office said the program has already received 800 applications from families and about $500,000 in donations. That’s not enough to fund the scholarships if all of the applications are accepted.

“You need to make sure that the turkey and the sides are coming out of the oven hot at the same time,” said Julie Soffner, executive director of the Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation, one of the groups the state chose to run the program. “Our pipeline is full of families that want a scholarship. Now, the interesting challenge is just getting the word out.”

Soffner says the foundation is actively seeking donors.

This year, the state put a cap of $25 million on tax credits for the program, but Fitzpatrick said he expects the program to receive less than that this year. The total cap will increase over the next few years, until it reaches $50 million.

A list of the state-approved organizations and more information about program eligibility can be found on the state treasurer’s website.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

Kate Grumke covers higher education and the many school districts in the region for St. Louis Public Radio.

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