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Missouri’s private school voucher program severely underfunded in early days

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Applications open for MOScholars scholarship program

Missouri Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick, far left, and Rabbi Hillel Anton arrive at St. Cecilia Catholic School in south St. Louis for a news conference on MOScholars, Missouri’s K-12 scholarship program, on Friday, July 8, 2022.

ST. LOUIS — The Quintana-Sanchez family plans to put their seven children through St. Cecilia Catholic School, and now they will have state tax-credit scholarships to help.

Jesus, entering first grade, and Maria, entering kindergarten, are expected to be among the first children to receive the $6,375 annual vouchers for private school starting this fall.

“It’s a blessing to be able to put our children in a particular school and especially this school that is Catholic because that is our religion,” Lorena Quintana-Sanchez said, speaking in Spanish to the school’s principal Emily Roth.

More than 800 families have applied to the MOScholars program since it launched last month, said state Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick at a press conference Friday at the school in the Dutchtown neighborhood.

Under a new state law, MOScholars allows residents and businesses to receive a credit of up to 50% of state tax liability for donations to the program. Nonprofit groups certified as Educational Assistance Organizations then grant the scholarships to eligible students, prioritizing those with special needs or from low-income families who are entering kindergarten or first grade.

Requests by families interested in the program far exceed available funds at this point. Close to $500,000 in tax credits have been committed since donations opened July 1, according to the treasurer’s office. The initial funds are only enough to provide about 70 full scholarships after administrative expenses.

“The program only works with the generosity of people who are willing to contribute,” Fitzpatrick said Friday.

The six nonprofit groups, which are all connected to religious education, are responsible for raising the scholarship funds. Total donations are capped at $25 million in the program’s first year.

The Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation at the Archdiocese of St. Louis has received 314 applications for the tax-credit scholarships in the last two weeks, according to Julie Soffner, executive director.

The foundation plans to offer the scholarships to dozens of parochial and independent private schools, including Miriam School for students with learning differences.

A recent Supreme Court ruling allowing government funding of religious school tuition in Maine could ease a path for a similar expansion of MOScholars in the state budget, Fitzpatrick said.

The state Legislature should prioritize “funding students instead of institutions,” allowing parents to direct their tax dollars to a school of their choice, he said.

Parents have become more involved in their children’s education and want to send them to schools that align with their “social beliefs,” Fitzpatrick said.

Representatives from the religious groups said Friday they hope the law establishing the scholarship fund will be expanded statewide. The legislation was pared back to gain approval from rural Republican legislators. Only students in charter counties including St. Louis, St. Charles and Jefferson counties or cities with more than 30,000 people can participate.

Fitzpatrick’s twin 6-year-old sons, who have autism and other developmental disorders, do not qualify for the tax-credit scholarships because they live in rural southwest Missouri.

“I do believe we have good public schools in this state. ... I also know many families whose needs aren’t met in the public schools,” he said.

Posted at 4:30 p.m. Friday, July 8.

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