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Missourians Support New Private School Choice Program, but Desire Greater Regulation and Accountability

By Evan Rhinesmith, Ph.D., Associate Director, SLU/YouGov Poll; J. Cameron Anglum, Ph.D.

During the 2021 Legislative Session, Missouri passed HB 349 to establish the state’s first private school choice program, the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program. While the program will not go into effect until the fall of 2022, its passage represents a watershed moment in Missouri education.

Missouri recently created a tax-credit scholarship program called the “Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program.” Private donations will fund kindergarten through 12th grade private school scholarships or other educational services, and donors will receive a tax credit of up to 50% of their state tax liability. Do you support this program? - Strongly support: 18% - Support: 35% - Oppose: 10% - Strongly oppose: 9% - Not sure: 27%

Now that government commitment to private school choice in Missouri has moved from a hypothetical to a reality, we used the SLU/YouGov poll to ask likely voters a variety of questions related to the new private school choice program. Overall, Missourians support the new program, with 54% of likely voters indicating their support. 27% of voters were unsure if they support the program and 19% indicated opposition.

Throughout the 2020-21 school year, school choice gained traction as a major plank in the Republican platform. 58% of Republicans in Missouri said they support or strongly support the new private school choice program, 28% remained unsure, and 14% expressed some level of opposition. Self-identified Independent political voters were like Republican voters with 53% expressing support, 29% unsure, and 18% opposed. 33% of Democrats expressed some level of support of the program, including 15% indicating they strongly support. 28% expressed opposition to the new program and 24% were unsure.

Student Priority

Along with general support for the program, we asked a variety of questions pertaining to program design. As the program currently stands, students with disabilities are granted priority to receive a scholarship, followed by students who qualify for Free or Reduced-Price Lunch, and, finally, families that earn up to 200% of the federal poverty level. 53% of Missourians supported low-income students receiving priority. However, only 35% of Missourians supported students with disabilities receiving priority, while 41% of voters said they believe no students should receive priority.

Program Regulations

With Missouri’s private school choice program set to go into effect in the fall of 2022, important considerations remain concerning program design and the regulation of schools which opt to participate. Our SLU/YouGov Poll asked voters whether they support the following potential regulations:

  • Accept any scholarship to fully cover the costs of attendance
  • Follow all Missouri testing and public reporting requirements
  • Waive admissions requirements for scholarship students
  • Allow students to opt out of religious activities

Voters were most supportive of requiring schools to participate in and publicly report standardized test results like public schools, with 35% indicating they strongly support and 38% indicating support. 13% of voters expressed some level of opposition and 14% were unsure. Additionally, 59% of voters believe schools should accept the scholarship to fully cover the cost of attendance, 14% were opposed to this regulation, and 27% were unsure. Voters were more divided over the final two regulations. 37% of voters supported mandating schools waive admissions requirements for scholarship students and a similar percentage indicated opposition. 44% of voters supported mandating scholarship students be able to opt out of religious activities (at religiously affiliated participating private schools) and 41% of voters opposed this potential regulation.

Indicate whether you support or oppose regulating the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program in the following ways…The tax-credit scholarship program being limited to students who live in areas with a population of 30,000 or more. - Strongly support: 6% - Support: 10% - Oppose: 31% - Strongly oppose: 24% - Not sure: 29%

One of the final regulations we examined is directly tied to the existing program. To be eligible to receive a scholarship, Missouri students must live in areas with a population of 30,000 or more. This effectively limits eligibility to students in the St. Louis and Kansas City regions and a few other large areas throughout the state like Springfield, Columbia, and Jefferson City. This geographic limitation was a crucial compromise to gain sufficient legislative support. When asked about their support for this regulation, voters voiced clear opposition. 16% of voters expressed some level of support, while a clear majority, 55% of voters, opposed the geographic limitation, and 29% were unsure. This result was fairly consistent across party lines, but was weakest among Democrats, where 46% opposed, 32% were unsure, and 22% supported geographically limited access.

According to our poll’s findings, most likely voters support the state’s new tax credit scholarship program. While support is strongest among Republican and Independent voters, the state’s Democratic voters are not consistently opposed to the program either. As the program evolves, it will be important to understand the nuances of its design and the regulations placed on participating private schools. Voters have shown a desire to hold participating schools to similar test-based and reporting accountability to that of the state’s public schools, along with requiring private schools admit scholarship students absent customary school admissions requirements. As policymakers refine the program over the coming months, it will be interesting to see if public opinion influences any of these design elements. The difficulty will lie in weighing program attractiveness among prospective families with regulatory considerations which may disincentivize schools from making seats available to scholarship students.