Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters speaks during House debate on Feb. 25, 2021 (Photo by Tim Bommel/House Communications).
With only a week left in the legislative session, the Missouri Senate passed a bill Thursday that would establish scholarship accounts to pay for costs like private school tuition — sending a top priority for school choice advocates and legislative leadership to the governor’s desk.
After less than 15 minutes of debate, House Bill 349, sponsored by Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters, passed out of the Senate on a 20 to 13 vote.
All 10 Senate Democrats voted against the measure with three Republican members — Sens. Lincoln Hough, Sandy Crawford and Karla Eslinger — joining them in opposition.
The bill is a major victory for school-choice advocates who have tried to pass significant legislation more than a decade.
“I’ve found that in my five years here, this building is full of surprises, and you never know what’s going to happen next. Today was a good surprise,” Christofanelli said, later adding: “Year after year, I’ve seen this bill die and to finally get it across the finish line it’s personally a proud moment.”
The bill’s passage was less welcome news to opponents of the legislation, who said they were surprised by how the vote went.
“I really expected, frankly, good sense to prevail. That was my understanding of what would happen today,” said Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur. “I’m part of a minority, but I thought some members of the majority party really understood the ramifications for the kids in their districts, and they voted against the interests of the kids.”
Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said speaking with colleagues about the tangible impacts of the program and how it would affect the current public education system helped shepherd the bill’s passage.
“I think part of what ended up allowing us to get some of these last few votes, frankly, was just the rigidity of the public school establishment who say, ‘It’s our way, or the highway,’” Rowden said, later adding: “And I think people got immensely frustrated by that.”
Rowden believes public school advocates went into Thursday’s vote, “thinking they were going to win and we ended up having well more than we needed to get the thing done. So maybe it’ll teach them a lesson that this building’s about compromise, and it’s about coming to the table and being honest about challenges and being honest about solutions.”
School choice was deemed a top priority this session for leadership in both chambers. House Speaker Rob Vescovo, an Arnold Republican who made a rare speech on the House floor urging for the bill’s passage earlier this session, applauded the bill’s passage. He said in a statement that, “it’s a good day for Missouri students.”
The bill would establish the “Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program” and allow residents to receive a tax credit for donating to certain educational assistance organizations. Those organizations would then provide scholarships to eligible students that could be used toward a variety of costs, like private school tuition, tutoring, transportation and more. The bill may reduce the state’s general revenue by an estimated $50 million in its initial years, according to a fiscal analysis of the program.
The bill outlines that scholarships would first be prioritized for students who have special education needs or fall below 100 percent of the income standard used to qualify for free and reduced price lunches — which is a little over $48,000 for a household of four in Missouri.
From there, students who fall below 200 percent of that standard — nearly $97,000 annually for a household of four in Missouri — would be prioritized.
Scholarships will only be issued if state transportation aid is funded at a minimum of 40 percent of what’s needed — which was a major piece to winning over some rural lawmakers’ support, said Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester.
To garner support, concessions were made to more narrowly tailor the bill, including adding a $75 million cap to the amount of tax credits issued, a five-year hold harmless to offset school districts losing funding and restricting it to only municipalities with more than 30,000 residents — which would shield it from entering rural areas.
For years, resistance has remained steadfast to school-choice measures — an issue that doesn’t fall neatly across party, geographic or ideological lines in the legislature.
“This year, we had the right circumstances to get it done,” Koenig said, later adding: “We worked it very hard.”
School choice advocates said the pandemic’s upending of the school system helped galvanize families, opening their eyes to the need for more choices and giving bills like House Bill 349 the momentum needed to pass.
Laura Slay, the executive director of the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, said in a statement that families and teachers have been pleading for the right to choose for more than a decade, and now “more students will have the opportunity to succeed in school and thrive in their lives.”
This session, the bill’s passage took a herculean effort behind the scenes. The bill passed out of the House in late February with the bare minimum of 82 votes required.
“Every vote was critical,” Christofanelli said, later adding: “I think the compromises were necessary to build a coalition that would have the momentum to carry it across the side of the building to get it done.”
The bill now heads to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk for his signature, where public school advocates who are concerned the program will funnel taxpayer dollars to schools not accountable to elected officials hope it will be struck down.
“Missouri’s children and taxpayers deserve better, and we urge Gov. Parson to veto it,” Melissa Randol, the Missouri School Boards’ Association’s executive director said in a statement.
Schupp said she didn’t feel the bill was narrowly tailored enough to help students most in need, and hopes to see measures like means testing added. Schupp said prior working groups of the Senate Education Committee had helped foster bipartisan collaboration on historically controversial education issues — but that was missing from Thursday’s vote.
“It’s been refreshing, and it’s good to do that and to know that we all have a common goal,” Schupp said of the group’s meetings. “That common goal was absent from today’s bill that passed.”
With the education savings accounts program’s passage, Rowden said other major legislative pushes, like expanding charter schools beyond Kansas City and St. Louis, are unlikely to happen, as they would face “a pretty uphill climb” in the House.
“One thing that I think education reformers in this building haven’t done well over the past decade is take incremental wins when you can get them,” Rowden said. “And so certainly this is that. It’s a big win. It’s a huge, huge, huge step forward for Missouri.”
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