Missouri legislator proposes five ESA bills on pre-filing day, including universal school choice bill

Image courtesy of Hurlbert for Missouri.

Dec. 1 was pre-filing day for the Missouri legislature’s 2023 legislative session, and at least one elected official is locked in on improving the state’s new school choice program.

State Rep. Josh Hurlbert, R-Smithville, pre-filed eight total pieces of legislation for next year’s session, five of which are intended to bolster Missouri’s empowerment scholarship accounts (ESA) program known as MOScholars.

The first ESA bill Hurlbert pre-filed, House Bill 242, is a universal school choice measure that would expand MOScholars to allow for any student in Missouri to qualify for a scholarship.

Such a bill is considered to be the holy grail of school choice legislation.

If HB 242 passes, MOScholars “would be open to every student in the state, regardless of their income level, regardless of whether they have an individualized education plan or not, or where they live,” Hurlbert told The Heartlander. “So, this is the ultimate bill that Missouri needs to be working towards in order to truly obtain educational freedom for our students.”

The ultimate goal for MOScholars, Hurlbert says, is for “the same dollars we spend to put a kid in public school to follow that same kid if they choose a different educational option.”

Hurlbert also works as a scholarship coordinator for the Herzog Tomorrow Foundation – one of the Educational Assistance Organizations (EAO) collecting donations and doling out scholarships – which gives him a unique lens into what issues are being dealt with in MOScholars’ first year of operation.

While HB 242 is considered the be-all and end-all ESA bill by school choice proponents, Hurlbert also filed other bills that, if HB 242 falls short, he believes will still solve some of the issues he sees with the program.

One of them, House Bill 243, would expand the availability of ESA scholarships to qualified students residing in a county with at least 100,000 people. As the program currently stands, students are only able to apply for MOScholars if they live in a city of at least 30,000 people, or if they live in one of Missouri’s five charter school counties – Jackson, Clay, St. Louis, St. Charles and Jefferson Counties.

“Right now, we have a system in Missouri that is not open to every student,” Hurlbert said. “For example, you can be a Columbia Public School student, but if you don’t live in Columbia city limits, you don’t have the same opportunities for this scholarship that a kid who does live within city limits has. Same issue with Greene County and Springfield.

“So, we’re arbitrarily excluding half of the state’s population from participating in this program.”

House Bill 244 would expand the definition of a qualified student and get rid of current restrictions on students who are already enrolled in private schools prior to applying for a scholarship.

Currently, if a student is in second grade or older, they have to be attending or have attended a public school in the last year to qualify for MOScholars. This is an issue, Hurlbert says, because many students switched to private schools in 2020 and 2021 due to public school COVID-19 lockdowns across the state.

“We had a lot of students that switched over to private schools during 2021 because of the lockdown decisions our school districts made, that were then automatically disqualified from this scholarship opportunity,” he said.

If HB 244 is passed, students would not have any restrictions to their scholarship eligibility for already attending a private school before applying for MOScholars.

House Bill 245 would create a waitlist system for students who qualified for the scholarship program but did not accept a grant to remain eligible in the following years. This comes into play if an EAO doesn’t have enough funds to award a scholarship to a qualified student.

If qualified students are unable to accept a grant the year they qualify due to an EAO being short on funds, they currently would have to reapply and requalify the following year to receive a scholarship. Hurlbert believes the way the system is currently set up unfairly punishes students for something completely out of their control.

“It comes back to what is fair for the student,” he said. “If a student takes a leap of faith and starts attending a private school hoping to get this scholarship, and then if it falls through, why are we punishing that student and disqualifying them from the program moving forward?

“It’s only fair to the student that they not be punished for attending a private school and finding a way to make it work while they’re waiting for the scholarship to come through.”

The last of the ESA bills Hurlbert pre-filed, House Bill 332, would expand the accepted types of special-needs learning plans in order to qualify for a scholarship. Right now, if students have an individualized education plan drafted by their public school, they can qualify for a scholarship regardless of income, but not if the student has a different type of learning plan.

HB 332 would expand the accepted special-needs learning plans to include individualized service plans and 504 support plans, “both of which are still done in conjunction with your public school, but they are more designed for private school students,” he said.

Hurlbert says he believes this would even the playing field of eligibility for current private school students, and bring Missouri’s inaugural school choice program closer to where it needs to be.

“We’ve had about 40% of our special-needs students who we thought would qualify for this scholarship get rejected by the state because they didn’t have the right kind of learning plan in place already. This is a very minor tweak to the existing program, just to make it more of what the legislature intended it to be two years ago.”

Missouri’s ESA program was signed into law in 2021 to give students and families more freedom in their educational options. It’s also only the second such program in the country that offers tax credits to donors. That’s significant because it allows what most school choice advocates would say is their top priority – funding students instead of systems, by having tax dollars actually follow the students regardless if they’re enrolled in a public or private school.

“It’s the ultimate educational freedom if we actually have those tax dollars follow the student,” Hurlbert says.