Education and COVID-19: Two big topics up for debate among Missouri lawmakers

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Teachers and those who fall under Phase 1B-Tier 3 in Missouri will be able to get a vaccine in less than 20 days, but not all lawmakers agree with Gov. Mike Parson’s announcement. 

This week in the statehouse, COVID-19 and education were the big topics up for discussion. Senators spent two night in the Capitol after midnight, while over the House, representatives passed a new scholarship bill helping students pay tuition at private schools. Both chambers spent hours debating education legislation. 

“This week was demonstration of backwards priorities and actions,” Sen. John Rizzo, D-Kansas City, said. 

The Senate spent nearly 12 hours debating a large education reform bill Tuesday night into Wednesday morning. Senate Bill 55 would expand charter schools in communities with more than 30,000 people, create a Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program and would change the way state funding is allocated for virtual learning. 

Just before 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Senate delayed perfecting the measure. If senators want to continue moving forward with S.B. 55, they must vote to reconsider the bill by Monday. 

“Some compromises to be added and I still think there’s some things, some discussions that we want to have,” Senate Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said. “I think it’s more important than ever that kids have whatever resource and whatever access they need to be able to grow and develop and be educated in a way that’s going to allow them to be productive citizens.”

Across the aisle, Rizzo said Democrats want to fix the education system, but Republicans push legislation that involves charter schools. 

“We’ve dealt with the charter school bill, Senate Bill 55, and instead of investing in public schools, they push legislation to drain public schools in a $50 million voucher scheme,” Rizzo said. “We can do a lot of good things for our public schools. Whenever somebody talks about education improvements or quote-on-quote reform, it always relies on charger schools or vouchers.”

Over in the House, representatives spent hours discussing legislation that would create the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program.

The program would allow students in Missouri to attend a school of their choice with tuition paid for. It would allow for certain nonprofits to raise funds in exchange for their donations, give tax credits up to 100 percent of their donation amount. 

“Nonprofit groups, known as education assistance organizations, those organizations will register with our state treasurer’s office and they will be able to raise money for the purpose of issuing scholarship accounts to children in need across Missouri,” bill sponsor Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R- St. Peters, said. 

House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, pushed his colleagues to vote in favor of the legislation. 

“You vote no against this, I hope you walk out of this building with your head held high,” Vescovo said. “Why can’t we get to these kids when they are 10, 12 and 14 years old when they need us to grab them and put them in a better learning environment than putting them in jail when they’re 16, 17 and 18.”

Democrats blame Republicans for not being concerned about growing violence in the state’s big cities. 

“We have violence in Kansas City and St. Louis,” Rizzo said. “What’s their solution? Nullify federal gun laws. The disconnect between Jefferson City and especially St. Louis and Kansas City is palatable.”

Republicans say the conversation starts with education. 

“You want to talk about criminal justice reform?” Vescovo asked his colleagues. “It’s education. There’s nothing more positive in criminal justice reform than education.”

Tax credits would be capped at $75 million under the proposal. During Wednesday’s debate, Christofanelli added an amendment that would limit who’s eligible for the scholarship. Only students living in a city with a population of 30,000 or more would be able to apply.

“Unfortunately, in many rural districts, unfortunately the public school is the only place to go,” Christofanelli said. “There may not be a private school that you can send your kid to.”

The bill passed the House on Thursday afternoon with 82 votes, the minimum needed. The measure now goes to the Senate for approval. 

Other big news out of the statehouse this week: Those Phase 1B-Tier 3, including teachers, are next in line for the vaccine

“This will make approximately 550,000 more Missourians eligible to be vaccinated,” the governor said Thursday. 

Democrats say teachers were forced to wait too long to be eligible. 

“For someone to have to make the decision of going back to their classroom, possibly getting COVID, having adverse reaction and having apprehension about that, for someone else to say they don’t want to go back to work, that’s absurd,” Rizzo said. 

Parson said Thursday he’s aware of Missourians in urban areas driving to rural locations for a vaccine, but others say that’s uncalled for. 

“We’ve got to do better with our more dense populations like St. Louis and Kansas City,” Rizzo said. “The tier rollout should be based on how many vaccinations we can get. I would take care of the dense populations first, not because I represent one, but because it’s a communicable disease.”

Tier 3 is eligible for the vaccine starting March 15. Parson said if vaccine supply continues to increase, Phase 2 should be eligible by the end of April. 

Next week, the House is expected to take up unemployment benefits. This legislation would allow Missourians to keep their overpaid unemployment benefits from the federal government. In Missouri, the Department of Labor says there are $150 million of overpayments. 

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