Teacher and student
James V. Shuls

Children with special needs can be extremely challenging, and costly, to educate. Often, they require aides, therapists, counselors, and other accommodations.  Try as they might, public schools often struggle to educate some of the neediest children. Meanwhile, parents often feel as if they are grasping for straws trying to get their children the services they need. This isn’t a criticism of the many dedicated professionals and educators who serve special-needs children; this is a criticism of the system itself. It’s an asymmetrical arrangement: the school system has complete power over the educational resources even though the parents are the ones who best understand how those resources should be used for their own children.

Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, otherwise known as Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), have the ability to change this. They allow parents to direct the funds toward the services that they believe will meet the needs of their children.

ESA bills have been introduced in both the Missouri House and Senate, but have yet to receive a hearing. In previous posts, Brittany Wagner explained how ESAs work and how parents could spend the funds. In numerous other posts, I and others have highlighted how school choice programs could improve educational options for students. Here I want to demonstrate how this type of program is a financial boon for Missouri.

In the proposed Senate Bill, which would cover special-needs students only, a tax credit of 75 percent would be granted to individuals who donate to a scholarship organization. That means a donation of $100 would count as a $75 payment towards your taxes. In other words, the scholarship organization is getting $100 from the donation and the state is still collecting $25 in taxes. As I explained in further detail in my paper, “Available Seats?,” this tax credit feature increases the amount of available funds for education.

That is not the only way savings accrue. Special-needs students who are eligible for the program could receive an ESA worth the “State Adequacy Target.” For the 2016-2017 school year, this will be $6,808. This is roughly $2,500 less than the amount of local and state dollars spent per pupil in 2015, and I can assure you that this is less than most schools spend on special-needs students. 

Every special-needs student who uses an ESA in this program will essentially be giving Missouri taxpayers and public schools a cost-savings.

In total, more than 6,800 scholarships of the full amount could be awarded under the proposed bill.  If we assume that each of these students would have attended a public school (this is not a stretch, since it is stipulated in the bill), then the cost-savings could be in excess of $14 million.

Number of Scholarship Students

Average State and Local Spending Per-Pupil

Total State and Local Spending

(Column 1 X Column 2)

Total Tax Credits

Savings for the State

(Column 3 – Column 4)





$ 14,016,360

 Special needs students may be difficult to educate, but it is not difficult to see that ESAs would be a boon for Missourians.  


About the Author

James Shuls
James Shuls
Distinguished Fellow of Education Policy

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.