After years of attempts, the GOP-controlled state House has passed a bill that would allow donors to provide scholarships for students to attend a private Missouri K-12 school. In return, those donors would get state tax credits equal to the amount of their gift. The scholarships could also be used for tutoring, school supplies, and computer gear. The plan could cost the state up to $75 million annually.

Rep. Phil Christofanelli (Photo courtesy of Tim Bommel, House Communications)

House Bill 349 passed Thursday with 82 “yes” votes – the minimum number required for approval. There were 71 Representatives who opposed it. The House of Representatives is currently made up of 162 members.

Under the bill, students who would be prioritized would be those with special needs and those who qualify for free and reduce price school meals.

Only students living in a Missouri city with a population of 30,000 or more would qualify. For instance, students who attend catholic schools in Missouri towns like Moberly, Mexico, Monroe City, and Marshall would not be eligible for these scholarships.

Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters, is sponsoring the measure.

“I don’t feel like we have ever tried anything new,” he said during debate. “We have heard a lot about how we could do more in this area or maybe we should look over here and just try to invest more in this particular program. And maybe all that’s true. But I believe it’s time to give several thousand children a chance at something new because what we’ve been doing, I think everyone has seen, has not been working.”

He referred to testimony about a Springfield girl, named Izzy, with disabilities who left her public school because it did not have wheelchair accommodations. Christofanelli said Izzy now attends a nearby catholic school that meets her needs.

“That’s not an indictment of her public school,” said Christofanelli. “Public schools have a broad mission and their goal is to try to serve everyone as best they can. The beauty of our system is that the private sector can accommodate sometimes special needs better than the government can because they have a different incentives structure.”

Rep. Doug Clemons, D-St. Ann, opposed the legislation.

“I’ve got to tell you, I just don’t give a rat’s left toe nail about private institutions. I was sent here by the people to work for the people on public institutions. Anybody sitting in one of these chairs has a responsibility to public institutions,” he said. “You know, I watched the testimony. I saw Izzy’s mom give her testimony. I believe every word that she said about her interaction with her public school and I think it’s a shame. I think it’s a shame that we have lost our responsibility in giving that school the resources it needs to meet her needs. That’s our responsibility.”

The legislation would also require the state to fund at least 40% of the projected amount to bankroll transportation aid to K-12 public schools. Clemons has a problem with that piece.

House Speaker Rob Vescovo (Photo courtesy of Tim Bommel, House Communications)

“We sit here and we talk about putting a trigger of 40% for transportation funding for our children as a goal, as if that’s some victory. What’s the matter with us? It should be funded 100%,” he said. “We’ve got rural children trying to get to school and these districts have to make up that money in their budget. A private institution is not responsible to us – not beholden to us. We have to meet the minimums for our children. A free market system is fine. Let those people be competitive. That’s fine. If they are more competitive than a public school, then let them earn their money.”

The state is currently funding K-12 transportation at about 33%. Up to 75% of these costs can be covered by the state.

In a rare floor speech, House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, was fired up. He said he dropped out of school when he was 16 years old.

“That was 28 years ago. What has changed in education in the state of Missouri in 28 years? Twenty-eight years, Mr. Speaker. What has changed? The only thing that has changed is we’ve gotten more and more special interests in this building that care about their own special interests. How are we going to fix our kids if we don’t do something,” he shouted.

He said there is nothing more positive in criminal justice reform than education.

“Why can’t we get these kids when they are 10 and 12 and 14 – when they need us to grab them and put them in a better learning environment than worrying about putting them in jail when they’re 16, 17, 18, and 19? I don’t want to grow my prisons. I want to grow my research department at Mizzou,” said Vescovo.

Rep. Allen Andrews, R-Grant City, was one of several Republicans who opposed the measure. Andrews is the House Republican Majority Whip.

Rep. Allen Andrews (Photo courtesy of Tim Bommel, House Communications)

“I believe we as Missourian citizens, have a moral obligation to provide a good and basic education to all of our youth, from the richest to the poorest to the most costly to educate and the least costly to educate. We bombard our public schools with new responsibilities, even with the unfortunate breakdown and the devastating fracturing of the family. We insist that our schools compensate for society’s failures and neglect, all the while we demand they meet rising academic expectation. In this chamber, our sensitivity toward political correctness here and at home, many times deters us from addressing the root cause, which is undeniably backed up by data that the family is the greatest institution ever created. School vouchers, open enrollment, charter expansion, education savings accounts, or a plethora of other ideas cannot substitute and will absolutely not address the challenges faced within our public school system and will not accomplish that moral obligation of providing a good and basic education to all students. Students, our most vulnerable students, will be left in an educational system where funding has trickled away when the money follows the child. For those children that are left behind, for the least of these children, I stand today as their voice, asking that we stop the back and forth rhetoric and begin to address the root cause and begin to build legislation of substance for all children in this state – not only those with the ability to choose. Any attempt to chip away at the financial infrastructure of our public school system will have a negative effect on our ability to provide every young Missourian equal access to a good education.”

The legislation heads to the Senate for consideration.

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