JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Education has been a big topic in Missouri’s Capitol this week as the Senate debated a large education reform bill overnight Tuesday and the House perfected legislation creating a new scholarship program.
The Senate spent nearly 12 hours debating and failing to vote on a bill that included this scholarship program Tuesday, but on Wednesday, it was the House’s turn. Lawmakers say it’s a conversation that’s been going on in the statehouse for years.
Rep. Phil Christofanelli (R-St. Peters) is the sponsor of House Bill 349, better known at the “Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program.” This program would allow students in Missouri to attend a school of their choice with tuition paid for.
“It’s not a silver bullet,” Christofanelli said. “We will still have problems in our education system after we pass this, but for a lot of children, it will make a real difference.”
The program would allow certain nonprofits to raise funds and in exchange for their donations, give tax credits up to 100% 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,” Christofanelli said.
Democrats pushed against the bill, saying there were no negotiations from Republicans on this legislation.
“We all, all 163 of us want to help kids the best way we can and sometimes we have different way to go about it,” Rep. Ian Mackey (R-St. Louis) said. “We’ve got to do better at working together in a meaningful and productive way.”
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 too.”
That addition to the bill did not sit well with others.
“How do I now go back to them [my district] and say, ‘Well, I voted for it, some of you liked it, some of you didn’t, but the bottom line, you get no advantage of it,’” Rep. Rudy Veit (R-Wardsville) said.
Rep. Raychel Proudie (D-Ferguson) called the bill an experiment, with the target being urban areas.
“If it’s good enough for your children, then you do it where you live, but don’t sit here on your high horse and say you’re going to help the poor kids,” Proudie said. “If it’s not good for your community and your kids, it’s not good for mine. So, stop using poor kids and black kids to experiment on. We pay taxes too.”
St. Louis Democrat Rep. LaKeySha Bosley offered an amendment the tied the scholarship program to the K-12 transportation line item in the state budget. Her proposal requires 40 percent of the line item to be funded by the state, giving her votes from both sides of the aisle.
The scholarship could be used for other things than tuition, like transportation, tutors and school supplies. Christofanelli said the measure would also put students who live at the poverty level to be at the front of the line for the scholarship.
The bill needs final approval from the House before moving to the Senate.