After passing tax credit program to fund school choice, lawmakers cut it in half

The slash was part of a deal made to win Senate approval last week

The Missouri House Chamber
The Missouri House Chamber during the 2nd Extraordinary Session in November 2020. (Photo by Tim Bommel/House Communications)

Less than a week after an education savings account program was sent to the governor — a major victory for school choice advocates more than a decade in the making — the Missouri House voted on Tuesday to cut the program in half. 

Lawmakers said the slash to the program was part of a previously negotiated deal that helped the bill win Senate approval last week in the first place. 

The concession materialized Tuesday in an amendment to Senate Bill 86, an unrelated education bill. Rep. Phil Christofanelli, a St. Peters Republican and sponsor of the original ESA bill, offered the amendment which cut the amount of tax credits issued in the program’s first year from $50 million down to $25 million.

Additionally, a $75 million cap on the program’s growth would be reduced to $50 million.

The underlying bill, which would prohibit school districts or their employees from spending public funds to weigh in on candidates or ballot measures, was narrowly passed in the House by a vote of 84 to 67 — just two votes more than the constitutional majority needed for passage.

With just three days left in the session, the bill now heads back to the Senate, where a conference committee was requested Tuesday night to work through differences with the House.

Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters, sponsor of HB 349, speaks during the third reading of his legislation/
Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters, sponsor of HB 349, speaks during the third reading of his legislation on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. (Photo by Tim Bommel/House Communications)

Christofanelli said the amendment was offered in “good faith” as a result of conversations with the Senate.

“Is it everything that I wanted? No. I’ve made a million changes to this bill that I did not want to do,” Christofanelli said on the House floor. “I think every student in this state should have access to an ESA to attend the school of his choice at any time, but that’s not where we’re at. We’re in a political body where you have to negotiate with other members and compromise to get things done. And I believe when you make your word on one side of the chamber, you should walk over here and stick to it.”

Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Republican from Manchester and the bill’s handler in the Senate, said while he would have preferred the program begin at $50 million, it was a concession that had been agreed upon to garner support from senators to vote in favor of the bill’s passage. 

After little discussion, the Senate passed and sent to the governor’s desk House Bill 349 last week by a vote of 20 to 13.

If the Senate had amended the bill and sent it back to the House, its fate would have been uncertain. When it originally passed in late March, it did so with the bare minimum number of votes required. Since then, one of those yes votes — Rep. Rick Roeber of Lee’s Summit — was expelled from the House.

“When I was trying to pass (the ESA bill) through the process, I promised that I would cut the program to $25 million or do everything in my power to try to do that in another bill,” Koenig said in an interview with The Independent.

Sen. Jason Bean, R-Holcomb, confirmed that concession was key to his support.

“I’m a businessman,” Bean said, “And when you see changes, especially what we’ve seen in education, you want to go slow, see if the program works.”

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.

Under the amendment proposed Tuesday, only 10 such nonprofits could operate each year, with the counties of Jackson, St. Charles, St. Louis, Greene and St. Louis city only permitted to have six of those organizations.

The program is restricted to only municipalities with more than 30,000 residents — which would shield it from entering rural areas. 

The bill first prioritizes scholarships be issued to 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 — would be prioritized ahead of any remaining students.

Missouri Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City.
Missouri Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City (photo courtesy of Senate Communications).

All 10 Democrats voted against the bill’s passage out of the Senate last week. Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat, said she hopes to still see the bill more narrowly targeted to reach students and schools most in need.

“We have worked for months and months and months trying to identify and target vouchers to go towards the neediest kids in the worst performing schools,” Arthur said. “And I feel like there have been cynical political gamesmanship and decisions made that have allowed the ESA bill to pass. But ultimately, it is not in the best interest of Missouri students.”

Arthur said she thought the vote would be closer than how it turned out, as some senators who had initially disagreed with the bill later voted in support of it. Arthur said Tuesday afternoon she had not seen the amendment’s language, and that last week, the ESA bill had been presented as final.

“And usually we filibuster in order to buy time to work out a better version of the bill or to find some sort of compromise,” Arthur said. “So when we were told that there could be no changes made to that bill then that didn’t make a ton of sense to filibuster.”

Arthur still hopes to tailor the scholarship program in the session’s last few days. Tuesday’s amendment that would slash the amount of tax credits issued in half still must go back to the Senate for final approval.

Under the bill, scholarships will only be issued if state transportation aid is funded at least 40 percent of what is required — another major concession to win rural lawmakers’ support.

More than 7,000 students were estimated to receive scholarships under the original version of the program, according to a fiscal analysis of the bill. Koenig said if the smaller program is taken advantage of, then it will be evidence of its demand.

“If it gets maxed out, that means there’s a need out there that parents want it,” Koenig said. “We need to provide choices to parents. I think we need to redefine what public education is. It should be about the child and not about the institution, just like every other government program that we have.”

The amendment faced bipartisan opposition, but for some lawmakers who had strongly opposed the ESA bill when it made its way through the House, the amendment was one they now welcomed.

Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson, said she supported both the underlying bill, and the cut to the education scholarship accounts program.

“Not only does it prevent my taxpayer money from pushing an initiative that I personally may not want…” Proudie said. “If I’m concerned about the money that may be taken out of public schools, it’s going to drop that from $50 million to $25 million.”

Tuesday’s amendment would also establish a board that would oversee the distribution of scholarships. In addition to the state treasurer who would serve as chair, the board would also consist of the commissioners of the Departments of Higher Education, Elementary and Secondary Education, Office of Administration and members appointed by the Senate president pro tem, House speaker and governor. The provision was added at the request of the Treasurer’s Office, Koenig said.

Once tax credits are issued, the treasurer’s office would be permitted to use 4 percent of the total contributions received by each nonprofit to help cover costs to administer the program, under the amendment.

An additional amendment offered Tuesday by Rep. Ben Baker, R-Neosho, would also allow families who own property and have paid at least $3,000 in school taxes in a district outside of their home district for at least three years to send their children to a public school in that area.