- Associated Press - Saturday, January 21, 2017

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens didn’t explicitly mention school choice in his State of the State address, but he did call for education savings accounts for students with special needs - a measure that lawmakers and school choice advocates say could open the door to broader choice measures.

Choice advocates say savings accounts give parents more control over their child’s education. Opponents argue that such programs take away money from underfunded public schools to invest in private ones. For Missouri lawmakers, education savings accounts are a relatively new idea.

Sen. Ed Emery of Lamar has filed legislation to create education savings accounts for students with disabilities such as autism, developmental delays, learning disabilities and hearing or speech impairments.

The accounts, which transfer state dollars to parents through a bank account, can be used for educational costs including private school tuition, online class tuition or fees, textbooks, tutoring, therapy, and standardized tests, including the ACT and SAT.

Emery said the accounts give parents the ability to choose the best education for their own children. He said the quality of public education is going down and the cost is going up, and parents need other options.

Although the bill applies only to students with disabilities, Emery said he hopes the program will expand to cover other students over time. The goal is to provide education in a “free market” with a variety of choices, he said.

Emery is confident the measure will pass because of the governor’s support. Greitens called for school choice during his campaign, but outlined no specific plans.

“If the (savings account) program is successful, as it has been in other states, we should learn from that success,” Greitens’ spokesman, Parker Briden, said in an email.

No similar bill has been filed in the House, but House Speaker Todd Richardson has made school choice a priority.

Brent Ghan, deputy executive director for the Missouri School Boards’ Association, said his organization opposes the savings accounts because they use public money to pay for private school tuition.

“We’re facing an extremely difficult and challenging budget year as far as school funding is concerned,” he said. The state doesn’t fully fund public schools in even the poorest districts, so it can’t afford to divert money to private schools, he said.

The debate over using public funds for private school tuition has also been fought in courts. Many states have so-called Blaine amendments that prohibit spending state dollars on private education.

Some states have found a way around that by having parents pay the private school tuition directly. But Nevada’s savings account program was suspended last year after the state Supreme Court said Nevada could not take money out of public school allocations to fund the program.

Arizona’s savings accounts - which mirror the Missouri proposal - were backed by its Supreme Court. Arizona has expanded from covering kids with disabilities to military families, foster children and students from low-performing schools.

It’s difficult to tell whether student performance has improved where the savings accounts are in place because of limited data, said Arizona State University professor and education policy researcher David Garcia.

“I think the idea here is that if parents are making the choice, it must be the right one. But we don’t know,” he said. “There’s no way to assess whether (parents) are spending it in an effective manner.”

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Follow Katie Kull on Twitter at https://twitter.com/KatieKull1

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