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For qualified families who don’t want their children to attend their local public school in Missouri, the state launched a scholarship program July 1 to help offset the costs.

MOScholars relies on six nonprofits to carry out much of the K-12 scholarship program, including choosing which schools to work with, accepting donations and creating scholarship accounts for students. 

The one thing all six have in common? They’re all faith-based or focused on religious schools.

And despite some of the nonprofits’ stated desire to work with any school that approaches them, as of July 19, approximately 95% of the Kansas City-area schools that have partnerships with the MOScholars organizations are Christian.

That could change as more schools show interest in the program or as additional nonprofits apply for certification in the coming years. 

State Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick told The Kansas City Beacon that the six nonprofits his office certified for the program were the only applicants.

While up to $25 million is allocated for the program, it isn’t funded directly by the state. Instead, the state is willing to forgo up to $25 million in tax revenue through credits offered to taxpayers who donate to the program. 

Credits can be reserved online and can account for up to half of a person’s tax liability next year. The minimum donation is $500. 

Fitzpatrick said that after accounting for administrative costs, $25 million would cover about 3,450 students annually. The maximum scholarship amount is equal to Missouri’s adequacy target, the baseline of funds it allocates for each public school student, which is $6,375 this school year.

If donations don’t reach $25 million, the number of students who receive scholarships will be lower. 

As of July 19, taxpayers had reserved $1,151,449 of tax credits, enough funding for about 180 students without accounting for administrative costs. Meanwhile, the treasurer’s office had received 1,103 applications, according to Mary Compton, director of communications.

Which schools can you attend under MOScholars

While each of the nonprofits chosen to work with MOScholars announced a focus area based on religion and/or location, several say they are willing to branch out to work with other schools. 

But as of July 19, about 94% of entries on the statewide lists of schools that have partnered with each nonprofit are for religious schools. 

About 98% of the more than 250 religious school entries statewide are for Christian schools. Other religions represented include Judaism and Islam. One nonprofit focuses entirely on Orthodox Jewish day schools, sponsoring four in the St. Louis area. 

(Some schools, both religious and nonreligious, partner with more than one nonprofit, meaning the actual percentages of religious and Christian schools may be different due to duplicate entries.) 

In the Kansas City area, more than 94% of the 35 partnered schools are Christian, after accounting for duplicate entries.  

In comparison, the 2019-20 Private School Universe Survey, the most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics, shows that about 83% of the more than 450 Missouri schools that responded were religious. 

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 religious. 

Fitzpatrick said he isn’t worried about schools being left out of the program in the long term, barring extreme circumstances, because he trusts the educational assistance organizations will continue to add schools that families express interest in.

Fitzpatrick said families should contact one of the organizations that works in their area if they want to see a school added. 

“Is there the possibility there may be a school that may not want to work with a particular (assistance organization) because of their religious affiliation? That may be the case,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’re trying to minimize that.” 

Fitzpatrick said he thinks religious organizations applied to work with MOScholars because they already had experience administering scholarships. His office can certify up to 10 organizations next year, and applications reopen in late fall 2022.

We’re talking about schools when we really should be talking about parents who have a scholarship to use wherever they want

Peter Franzen, Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri

One organization is the Bright Futures Fund, which is partnering with all eligible Catholic schools in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. Jeremy Lillig, the fund’s executive director, said his organization’s experience with fundraising will make it easier to reach its initial goal of $2.5 million. 

“Philanthropically, we raise over $2 million a year, usually,” he said. “This (MOScholars program) is, you know, an extra nice benefit to be able to offer people but we have long-term experience in implementing this kind of program.”

Joshua Swartz, director of schools for the Missouri District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, said he has experience working with a similar program in Alabama. 

“There are some differences within Missouri, but we feel that we’re pretty confident and have a pretty good handle,” he said. 

Peter Franzen, associate executive director of the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, said he sees religious organizations and the schools they’re already connected with as the “low-hanging fruit” when it comes to quickly getting schools and donors involved with the MOScholars program. 

The nonprofit CEAM has promoted the program and generally supports increased school options for families, including charter schools and virtual schools.

As it continues, Franzen is hopeful MOScholars will be able to work out any initial logistical issues that have made some schools slower to get connected. 

“We’re talking about schools when we really should be talking about parents who have a scholarship to use wherever they want,” Franzen said. 

According to the treasurer’s website, the four organizations working with schools in the Kansas City area include: 

  • The Association of Christian Schools International Children’s Tuition Fund. The fund will primarily work with association member schools but may partner with others, including home-school students. A spokesperson told The Kansas City Beacon by email that the group was willing to work with any qualified school in the state. About 95% of its 19 partners are Christian as of July 19. 
  • The Bright Futures Fund. The fund plans to partner with schools within the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and with home-school students who meet its requirements. “I would never say no” to the possibility of working with an interested school outside the focus area, Lillig said, but the current list of 26 Catholic schools is “the network that we were able to employ now and to do so effectively.”
  • Herzog Tomorrow Foundation. The treasurer’s website says it will primarily work with K-12 Christian schools but is willing to work with secular schools and those of other faiths. Elizabeth Roberts, communication director for the foundation, told The Beacon that it has not turned any interested schools away and doesn’t anticipate doing so. “Any school that’s currently on our list is there because a family or administrator from that school has contacted us.” About 80% of the schools on its list are religious. 
  • The Missouri District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The nonprofit partners with Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod schools around the state and with home-school students. Swartz said the organization added all of its schools that qualified to its partner list and is not likely to partner with other schools. 

There are also two nonprofits working solely in the St. Louis area, one working with four Orthodox Jewish day schools and the other working with about 140 private and parochial schools in St. Louis city, St. Louis County and Jefferson County.

How the K-12 scholarship program works

Approved during the 2021 legislative session, the MOScholars program is part of the effort to provide more affordable options outside of traditional public schools.

The program prioritizes families who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and students who have individualized education programs — tailored plans for students with special needs. 

If scholarship dollars remain in August, Fitzpatrick said his office will open the program to a second tier of families who make under 200% of the limit for receiving free or reduced-price lunch. 

For a family of four to receive priority, the household income would need to be below $51,338. If a second tier opens, the family could make up to $102,676. 

Applicants who qualify based on income 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 for 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 anyone who lives in Jackson or Clay counties, no matter the size of the city they live in. Residents of Kansas City, Independence or Lee’s Summit are also eligible even if they live outside of Jackson or Clay counties. 

The scholarships can be used for properly accredited private schools, home-school expenses and supplemental expenses like tutoring. They can even be used in charter schools and traditional public schools, which are free to attend for students inside their boundaries but sometimes enroll students from other districts who are willing to pay tuition. 

Fitzpatrick said he hopes the program reaches as many students as is “feasible” this year and further expands next year. 

“Ultimately what I’d like for it to do is to have testimony from families whose lives have been changed by this and that results in the legislature feeling comfortable expanding the program to the full state,” he said.

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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.