Missouri Just Gave Me Back My Power to Choose the Best School for My Children

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This post originally appeared with Education Post.

As a single mother of four—three of them in school, and one in college—I’ve had to face my share of struggles. But some of the biggest struggles have come when my children ended up in poorly-performing public schools. With my children currently stuck in a school that isn’t working well for them, my state’s new Empowerment Scholarship Account program is promising us a way past our zip code. 

When Missouri’s inter-district school transfer program first started eight years ago, I lived in a low-performing district in St. Louis. The transfer program allowed me to enroll my children into a school in a nearby district, where my children thrived in a more challenging academic environment. The district didn’t provide transportation, so I had to drive my kids twenty minutes to public school every day—tough to juggle with my job, but a worthwhile sacrifice for their education.

In time, my oldest daughter decided she wanted to go to private school. While I couldn’t afford to pay for it myself, she offered to get a job to cover tuition. Her sacrifice and determination to attend the school of her choice provided opportunities for her and our family that we couldn’t have imagined. Today, she is continuing her education in college.

Unfortunately, the transfer program ended a few years ago, so my children could no longer attend the school they loved. Instead, housing issues meant our family had to move into a low-performing district. Ironically enough, our house is just a short walk from another school district. But because there’s not a transfer option, my children can’t attend that district’s schools—we literally live on the other side of the tracks.

All public schools are not the same and do not deliver the same quality education. At their old school, my children were challenged academically; now, they are bored and re-learning material they already covered. My son, who has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), is especially struggling with boredom. One of my daughters decided to stick with a virtual learning option this year because of fighting and overcrowded classes in her assigned school. All of my kids would rather be back in their old school, but right now they can’t, even though we still live about twenty minutes away. 

Kids don’t deserve for education to be tied to zip code like this; sometimes a neighborhood public school just isn’t a good fit. Thankfully, Missouri’s new ESA program may be giving us a way out. This program, which hopefully will begin next school year, gives families who meet income and residency requirements up to $6,375 per child in an account to use for educational expenses. I am considering using ESA funds to send my three school-aged children to private school, so they can have the same success and college opportunities as my oldest.

This January 23-29, School Choice Week raises awareness about learning options, including ESA programs. And don’t let the word “scholarship” confuse you—this option doesn’t just apply to high-performing students. It’s actually designed to give children who feel trapped in failing schools, or programs that don’t fit, the opportunity to recharge their education by attending a school that works better for them.

Like every parent I know, I want my kids to be learning at school and preparing for the future; they need school choices for that to happen. Missouri’s ESA program is a step in the right direction. Making public school transfers easier for families would be another.

Photo by PicsFive, Adobe Stock-Licensed.

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