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In late December, the Missouri treasurer’s office announced that more than 1,000 K-12 students had received scholarships to leave their local public schools through a state-sponsored program.

The MOScholars program leverages tax credits to attract donations that allow students to attend private schools — including ones that are religiously affiliated — and other options such as home schools.

It launched last summer after being approved by the legislature in 2021. 

This year, several lawmakers are attempting to expand the program, which could continue to grow even without further action from the legislature. The efforts are part of a movement to make it easier for families to leave their local public school districts — a popular topic of legislation so far in 2023. 

Here’s how the program works, who receives funds and who decides which schools participate. 

How much money can students receive in scholarships? 

This school year, students could receive as much as $6,375 each if they had eligible expenses that high. That’s equal to the baseline of funds the state thinks each public school student should receive.

Depending on the school and grade level, that amount might entirely cover private school tuition or not even come close. For example, tuition at Nativity of Mary School in Independence without financial aid is $5,000. Without financial aid, tuition for grades 9-12 at Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City is $26,865.

How many students get scholarships? 

According to a Dec. 27 news release from then-Missouri state Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick, 1,029 students received scholarships in the first semester of the program.

The treasurer’s office runs the program, and Fitzpatrick has been a strong supporter. He was sworn in as the Missouri state auditor on Jan. 9 after winning the November election. 

Funding limits the number of students who receive scholarships in a given year. 

This year, there was an overall cap of $25 million dollars. Accounting for the per-student limit and administrative costs, that would have covered about 3,450 students, Fitzpatrick said. 

But MOScholars is funded by donations, and it didn’t collect the full amount allowed. The news release says the final total was a bit less than $9 million. 

The treasurer’s office did not respond to a request for more information, including how many students applied. 

Who is eligible for MOScholars? 

The program prioritizes families who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and students who have individualized education programs to address special needs. 

If scholarship dollars remain unused on Sept. 12, the program opens to a second tier of families who make under 200% of the limit for receiving free or reduced-price meals, according to the treasurer’s website. However, applications from the first tier received after that date still get priority. 

Applicants also need to have attended public school full time for at least one semester during the past year or be eligible to enter kindergarten or first grade. 

The scholarship is available to families who live in a charter county or in a city with a population of at least 30,000. 

In the Kansas City area, that includes all residents of Jackson or Clay counties and all residents of Kansas City and Lee’s Summit, including the areas outside of a charter county. 

Other eligible areas include St. Louis city, three charter counties in the St. Louis area, Springfield, Columbia, Joplin, St. Joseph, Jefferson City and Cape Girardeau. 

Which schools can students attend?

The way state law is written, students can attend practically any school and receive a scholarship. 

That includes private schools, whether religious or secular. It also includes traditional public schools and charter schools, which are normally tuition-free but can charge tuition to nonresident students. There’s even a process for home-schooled students to receive funds. 

Schools — other than home schools — simply need to be accredited by one of 16 approved accreditation associations

In practice, the process of a school becoming eligible is a bit more complicated.  The program works through up to 10 nonprofits — known as educational assistance organizations. They are certified by the state and have the freedom to choose which schools they work with.

Some work only in a certain region or only with schools in a certain religious tradition.

Who are these nonprofits and how do they decide which schools to include?    

This program year, the state certified all six nonprofits that applied for the educational assistance organization role, Fitzpatrick told The Beacon in July. 

All are faith-based or focused on religious schools, and all have defined priority areas, but some are also willing to branch out to secular schools. 

The four nonprofits that work with Kansas City schools are:

The other two nonprofits are:

In July, a Beacon analysis indicated that the schools connected with MOScholars might be disproportionately affiliated with religious groups. That still holds true after the most recent update to the lists in early December. 

Around 90% of the entries statewide and in the Kansas City area describe themselves as religious, primarily Christian. 

In comparison, the 2019-20 Private School Universe Survey from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that about 83% of the more than 450 Missouri schools that responded to the survey had a religious affiliation. The survey also shows that among Kansas City-area schools that might qualify for MOScholars, based on location and grade level served, less than 80% were affiliated with religions. 

How do qualified families apply or get a school added to the list? 

Fitzpatrick told The Beacon in July that families can contact any of the educational assistance organizations if they’re interested in a school that is not on the list. 

Otherwise, the treasurer’s website says that families should review the Parent Handbook and then contact an organization working with the school they want to attend. 

Will MOScholars expand? 

It’s certainly possible. 

The cap for the program expands from $25 million in 2022 to nearly $26.9 million in 2023, and donations could grow closer to the cap as the program becomes better known.

More nonprofits could join the program as educational assistance organizations; up to 10 total are allowed. Existing and new nonprofits could add more schools to their lists of partners. 

Also, bills have been filed in the Missouri legislature for the current session seeking to expand the program to make more students eligible. 

Many of the proposals to expand MOScholars are being put forward by Rep. Josh Hurlbert, a Republican from Smithville. According to his LinkedIn page and other sources, Hurlbert works as a MOScholars scholarship coordinator for the Herzog Tomorrow Foundation. 

The most sweeping of Hurlbert’s proposals, House Bill 242, would make all students in the state eligible. 

How is the program funded? Are my tax dollars going to religious schools? 

The program is funded through donations that are eligible for tax credits. 

To encourage people to financially support the program, the state is forgoing millions of dollars in tax revenue that could otherwise be used for other purposes. But if you don’t choose to donate to the program, your tax dollars aren’t directly going to private schools. 

Tax credits can cover 100% of an eligible donation to one of the educational assistance organizations. However, they can’t exceed 50% of what a donor owes in taxes that year. The credits aren’t refundable or transferable but can be carried forward for up to four tax years. 

Donors must reserve tax credits before making a donation. The minimum contribution is $500. 

What impact does MOScholars have on public schools? 

Public school funding is based on enrollment, so programs that encourage students to attend other schools can reduce funding. 

When that happens, it isn’t always easy for public schools to reduce expenses as quickly as revenues fall or without causing problems for district families and neighborhoods.

Legislation establishing the MOScholars program says that when students leave a public school for the program, the district can continue counting them as enrolled until five years have passed, they stop participating in MOScholars, they graduate or they’re counted as a resident student attending a different public or charter school. 

Which Kansas City-area schools are involved? 

These Kansas City-area schools have partnered with at least one of the six nonprofits, according to lists on the treasurer’s website most recently updated in early December. 

Belton

  • Heartland Christian School

Blue Springs

  • Marian Hope Academy
  • Plaza Heights Christian Academy
  • St. John LaLande
  • Timothy Lutheran School

Gladstone

  • St. Andrew the Apostle

Grandview

  • Forerunner Christian Academy 
  • Grandview Christian School

Independence

  • Family Christian Academy
  • Nativity of Mary
  • Shelterwood Academy

Kansas City 

  • The Barstow School
  • Blue Ridge Christian School
  • Calvary Lutheran School
  • Clay-Platte Montessori School
  • Cristo Rey Kansas City High School
  • Faith Christian Academy
  • Holy Cross Catholic School
  • Kansas City Academy
  • Kansas City Lutheran High
  • Martin Luther Academy
  • Northland Christian School
  • Notre Dame de Sion School
  • Our Lady’s Montessori
  • Our Lady of Hope
  • Outreach Christian Academy
  • Pembroke Hill
  • Rockhurst High School
  • St. Charles Borromeo
  • St. Elizabeth
  • St. Gabriel Archangel
  • St. Patrick
  • St. Peter
  • St. Pius X High School
  • The Plaza Academy
  • St. Regis Academy
  • St. Therese North
  • St. Teresa’s Academy
  • St. Thomas More
  • Visitation
  • Whitefield Academy

Lee’s Summit

  • Our Lady of the Presentation
  • St. Michael the Archangel High School
  • Summit Christian Academy

Liberty

  • St. James

Smithville

  • Our Savior Christian Academy

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.