All of the groups interested in collecting and distributing Missouri’s new tax-credit scholarship funds for private schools have religious affiliations, according to the state treasurer’s office.
The application process to help manage the MOScholars program signed into law last year closes March 11. Groups that have indicated an intent to become “educational assistance organizations” starting next fall include:
- Agudath Israel of Illinois, part of Agudath Israel of America, “the arm and voice of American Orthodox Jewry” that “advocates for its constituents at federal, state, and local levels (to) provide social, educational, and youth services,” according to its website.
- Children’s Tuition Fund, an arm of the Colorado-based Association of Christian Schools International, operating in seven states with tax-credit scholarship programs including Illinois.
- Diocese of Kansas City/St. Joseph Bright Futures Fund
- The Herzog Foundation, endowed by the late Missouri businessman Stanley Herzog. The foundation launched in 2020 “to catalyze and accelerate the development of quality Christ-centered K-12 education so that families and culture flourish,” according to its website.
- Missouri District of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod
- Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation, based at the St. Louis Archdiocese’s Cardinal Rigali Center to raise scholarship funds that mostly go to students in Catholic schools.
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It’s unclear how many applicants will be approved. Six of eight scholarship-granting organizations in Illinois’ similar tax-credit system approved in 2017 have religious affiliations, although the largest, Empower Illinois, is secular.
While the US Supreme Court has ruled that state programs providing funding to private schools cannot exclude religious schools, the state “could still impose religion-neutral rules that prevent discrimination,” said Bruce Baker, professor of educational theory, policy and administration at Rutgers University .
In practice, the scholarship or voucher programs amount to state-sanctioned discrimination, Baker said.
More than 80 private schools in Florida that accepted vouchers in 2019 had policies allowing for expulsion of students based on sexual orientation or gender identity, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“Most of these states that have gone down this road to let conservative Christian schools access voucher programs, they like what those schools are doing and have no interest in regulating them,” Baker said.
The MOScholars program allows residents to receive a credit of up to 50% of state tax liability for donating to the educational assistance organizations. The groups will then grant the annual scholarships of up to $6,375, prioritizing those students with special needs or from low-income families. Eligible students can apply for the scholarships to start in the 2022-2023 school year.
The state treasurer’s office is expected to publish its rules by early March on how the program will be run.
In its first year, the program could add up to $25 million less in tax collections, that would instead divert to private schools and education companies that aren’t subject to public records laws and state oversight. The scholarships can only go to students in charter counties or cities with more than 30,000 people, including St. Louis city and St. Louis, St. Charles and Jefferson counties.
Under the law, private schools must not discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin to qualify for the scholarship funds. Participating private schools will not be required to change their admissions policies or curriculum.
State Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters, who sponsored the bill last year, said it’s too early to comment on the groups applying to run the program. He said the law protects against religious discrimination by the educational assistance organizations.
“It’s pretty well established in American law that you can’t discriminate for immutable characteristics like religion,” he said.
Under federal law, religious groups including schools may discriminate in hiring decisions and implement faith-based policies for student enrollment and tuition. The schools are also exempt from protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The ultimate aim of the program is to give families access to more options in a variety of school types, said Peter Franzen, associate executive director of the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, which is funded by school choice advocate Rex Sinquefield. The parent advocacy group has held informational sessions and received about 1,500 inquiries about the program.
“In the end it comes down to parents being able to put their kid in a school that works for them,” Franzen said. “We know there are families out there that are going to want this, and we want to get it to them as soon as possible.”