- Associated Press - Thursday, April 27, 2017

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri senators approved an education proposal on Thursday that would create tax-credit education savings accounts for some students and would change the way students can transfer from low-performing districts and schools.

Opponents say the savings accounts could be the “camel’s nose under the tent” for more school choice proposals. And a change in the accreditation process could require the state to revamp the way it evaluates districts and schools.

The proposal passed with a 20-12 vote and now goes to the House.

Bill sponsor Sen. Andrew Koenig said the bill will give parents with special needs children an option and would allow parents to “really direct their child’s education.”

The education savings accounts would allow donors to provide up to $25 million to a fund in exchange for a tax credit. That money would be given to parents of students with disabilities, foster children, and children with parents in the military for educational expenses such as private school tuition, tutoring, online classes and home schooling.

Children can qualify for the program if they have been enrolled in public school for at least one semester.

Sen. Jill Schupp, a Democrat from Creve Coeur, lambasted the bill. She said it would drain resources from public schools without offering better outcomes for students.

Private schools aren’t required to test students and adhere to state accountability standards, Schupp said. And they don’t have to provide services or lay out a federally mandated individual education plan for students with disabilities.

“We’re sending them to a school that doesn’t have to report back to the state,” she said. “We have no way of knowing when we send these taxpayer dollars through this tax credit scheme that their needs are being met.”

The savings accounts would only go into effect if the Legislature fully funds the state education formula and at least 21 percent of busing costs. It’s likely that lawmakers will fund the formula in next year’s budget.

Missouri is one of a handful of states considering similar voucher measures. Arizona recently expanded its savings account program to allow all students to qualify for the program, and last year Tennessee launched its own program for children with disabilities.

Koenig’s bill also seeks to change existing law that allows thousands of students to transfer out of unaccredited districts to higher-performing schools. Current law requires unaccredited districts to foot the bill for transportation to other schools, costing already struggling districts thousands of dollars.

The new bill would remove that provision and allow individual schools to become unaccredited, thus requiring students to first transfer within their own district. If those schools fill up, they may enroll in a nearby charter school, virtual school or nonreligious private school.

Democratic Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal of University City has sponsored bills in the past with similar transfer language. They were vetoed by then-Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, but Republican Gov. Eric Greitens has praised this year’s proposal and would be likely to sign it.

“I’m excited for this bill to come out,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “It is absolutely unacceptable for children to be trapped in schools that are unaccredited.”

Missouri Department of Education spokeswoman Sarah Potter said that changing accreditation standards would likely cause the department to rethink its accountability system.

The department currently releases accountability scores each year for schools and districts based on criteria including test scores, graduation rates, attendance and completion of advanced courses. Districts are accredited based on their performance using years of data from the state’s accountability reports as well as an evaluation from the state Board of Education.

Although reports are issued for individual schools, each school serves different ages of students and might be evaluated using additional criteria. For example, high schools have added categories such as graduation rates.

“When you look at districts, they’re a system,” Potter said. “(Looking at individual schools) doesn’t really give you a whole picture of what’s happening.”

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