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Missouri lawmakers expand private school scholarships backed by tax credits

Missouri Legislature
Posted at 11:04 AM, Apr 19, 2024

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri lawmakers on Thursday passed a bill to expand private school scholarships statewide, an effort made possible by extensive compromises including a commitment to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on public schools.

The GOP-led House voted with a bare-minimum margin of 82-69 to send the measure to Republican Gov. Mike Parson. If signed, it would offer up to $6,375 per child for expenses including tuition, textbooks, tutoring, transportation, extracurriculars and summer school.

The bill’s passage is a victory for advocates who have struggled for years to expand access to charter schools, virtual schools and private schools in Missouri. Worries about taking away resources from traditional kindergarten-12th grade public schools have been bipartisan.

The heart of the legislation is the expansion of Missouri Empowerment Scholarships Accounts, which low-income families can draw from. The money will come from private donors, who in return get tax credits.

“This is a victory for parents who want more control over their children’s education and for students who will now have more avenues to achieve their full potential," Republican Rep. Phil Christofanelli said in a statement.

The current scholarship program limits recipients to residents of the state’s largest cities and to families who make less than 200% of the federal poverty level, which works out to $62,400 a year for a family of four.

The bill passed Thursday would raise the cap to 300%, or $93,600 for a family of four. Public school students who need extra help through individualized education plans would get some additional scholarship money under the new law.

The legislation increases the cap on tax credits for the private donations from $50 million to $75 million per year, to help pay for a possible influx of students.

To gain support from lawmakers focused on helping traditional public schools, senators included money to raise minimum teacher salaries to $40,000 a year and adjusted the state's formula for funding public schools, a change expected to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars more to public education over time.

Several House Democrats cautioned that the state might not have enough revenue in future years to provide the massive influx in funding to public schools that the bill commits to.

“While the voucher expansion is essentially guaranteed, the promises to public schools depend on additional funding the state isn’t expected to have and future lawmakers aren’t required to provide,” House Democratic Minority Leader Crystal Quade said in a statement.

Another provision would allow charter schools in Boone County, where Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden lives. The bill also would require public votes to approve a school district’s switch to four-day school weeks and incentivize schools that maintain five-day weeks.

This issue supporters call “school choice” has divided lawmakers beyond typical Republican-Democrat lines in Missouri.

GOP legislators from rural districts have opposed allowing charter schools in their areas for years, fearing they could draw students away from traditional public schools seen as the backbone of their communities. Some Democrats, meanwhile, want students in underperforming urban schools to have more options.

And some conservatives lobbied against more regulations for homeschoolers and private schools. One activist handed out “dog poop” brownies before the vote, suggesting that unwanted provisions could ruin what might otherwise be a nice treat.