A contentious Missouri school choice bill is on its way to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk.
The state Legislature has passed a proposal that would let donors provide scholarships to students to attend a private Missouri K-12 school. In return, they would get state tax credits. The measure would also allow parents to use the scholarships for things like tutoring, school supplies, books, and other educational expenses.
For years, the school choice community has been trying to get similar legislation across the finish line in Missouri. The topic has been a major point of contention between school choice advocates and public school supporters. The educational challenges the pandemic has caused gave several state lawmakers extra ammunition to push the bill through both chambers this session.
House Bill 349 is sponsored by Representative Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters. In February, the House of Representatives passed the legislation with 82 “yes” votes – the minimum number required for approval in that chamber.
On Thursday, the state Senate signed off on the plan. It voted 20-13 with the upper chamber’s 10 Democrats and three Republicans voting against the measure. Sens. Sandy Crawford of Buffalo, Karla Eslinger of Wasola, and Lincoln Hough of Battlefield are the Republicans who opposed the bill.
Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, carried the proposal.
“This is a bill that is good for kids. It provides another option for kids who may need that option,” said Koenig. “The reality is every child is different. We don’t know what that child needs but the parents do. It could be that child is in a great school but maybe they’re being bullied and they need a different environment. Who knows what the needs of that child are.”
The bill would prioritize special needs students and those who qualify for free and reduce price school meals. Under the plan, 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.
In order to trigger the tax credits, the state would be required to fund at least 40% of the projected amount of transportation aid to K-12 public schools.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, has been strongly pushing for passage of the bill.
“There’s no scenario in my mind where we don’t continue to fund the formula. I think the notion that if we do this that there’s going to be some shortage of dollars for our K-12 schools is just patently false and is pretty easily pushed back against if you are looking at the data,” said Rowden.
During Senate floor debate earlier this session, he said his sister is a principal at a religious school in Columbia.
Senate Minority Floor Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, opposed the plan.
“This bill will drain $75 million away from public schools each year so certain families can get paid to homeschool their kids or get a kickback for sending them to private schools,” Rizzo said in a statement. “I’m proud of the Democratic caucus for voting unanimously against this legislation. I would encourage any communities upset with this legislation to take a hard look at the Republicans they send to Jefferson City.”
A statement from Melissa Randol, the executive director of the Missouri School Boards’ Association, said the organization is very disappointed with passage of the bill.
“This bill crosses an important line in Missouri, allowing taxpayer dollars to be used by certain private schools or home schools that are not accountable to the public to provide a quality education or to keep students safe. Missouri recently filed 102 criminal charges against two owners of such a school in our state,” said Randol. “This bill does not provide protections for children in those settings and instead allocates up to $75 million in taxpayer dollars to help keep such schools open. Missouri’s children and taxpayers deserve better, and we urge Governor Parson to veto it.”
Executive Director Laura Slay, with the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri (CEAM), issued this statement:
“Today is a historic day for children across the state of Missouri. CEAM is grateful to the thousands of volunteer advocates from all walks of life, from rural, urban, and suburban areas, who have given their time and energy to pass HB 349. For more than a decade students, parents, and teachers have been pleading for the right to choose the best education for their child. Our deepest appreciation to the forward-thinking members of the Missouri Senate who voted in support of the bill. Because of the bold actions taken by the Missouri Senate today and the House a few weeks ago, more students will have the opportunity to succeed in school and thrive in their lives,” said Slay.
To view House Bill 349, click here.
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