For 140 years, Missouri's Constitution has prohibited using any public money to benefit private or parochial schools.
But freshman state Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, wants the Legislature to ask voters to change that.
"This amendment would delete from our Constitution an anti-Catholic provision that was placed there over 100 years ago," Barnes told the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee on Tuesday morning, "and replace (it) with a provision ensuring that every parent and child in our state has the same opportunity currently enjoyed by wealthy Missourians, to send their children to any accredited school of their choosing."
He noted that 20 U.S. states, and a number of other nations, "have programs that provide for school choice in one way or another. ... Our country has existed for 224 years with an economy that's grown to be the strongest in the world, based on market forces.
"There's no reason that market forces can't be used to improve our education system."
Among those supporting Barnes' proposal was Joseph Gulino, principal of Jefferson City's St. Peter Catholic School.
"The passage of this bill would, hopefully, would lead to some kind of financial aid (I like the idea of tax credits to parents)," he said, "and many of our parents are of not-great financial means."
By allowing parochial parents to use some of their tax money for their children's education, he added, other parishioners would have a reduced burden of helping pay for the Catholic schools through their church donations, "which can free up more money from the parishioners to contribute to their local economies and to benefit and do good things for their local communities."
Don Rehagen of Jefferson City, father of two Helias High School students and two younger children at St. Peter's, told the committee: "(We) figure that we've spent over $15,000 a year in tuition and support to our children's schools," and that money could impact their children's ability to go to college.
Rehagen noted about 3,000 children living in the Jefferson City Public School District attend parochial or private schools.
"We feel that the local public schools in Jefferson City are some of the best in the state," he said. "We do not want to see the local public schools harmed."
Mike Hoey, director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, agreed.
But, he added: "If you look at Europe, the way think about public education is much broader than the way we think about it in this country - they think about public education being for all kids."
If the Missouri Constitution is changed, Hoey said, "The state of Missouri could be much more flexible about how they deal with private school children and these federal education programs."
The Missouri School Boards Association has a "long-standing resolution against using public money for non-public schools," President David Wright of Blue Springs said.
"Public schools are accountable to taxpayers through their locally elected boards of education," he said. "The private, religious schools are not accountable to taxpayers and, therefore, should not have access to taxpayer dollars."
Missouri National Education Association lobbyist Otto Fajen said changing the Constitution would mean the state would be "taking on the responsibility of education for at least 100,000 more students" who now attend non-public schools.
One sticking point for lawmakers could be the proposal's fiscal note, which was listed as ranging from $0 to $318 million.
Penny Rector, lobbyist for the Missouri School Administrators Coalition and some of the Kansas City area schools, told the committee the fiscal note likely is too low.
Using the state's current school funding formula, she said, the additional cost "will be in excess of $750 million."
But, if the statewide average cost for educating students is $9,000 per student each year, "that puts us over $1 billion. ... If we're going to go down this road, you'll have to find some substantial revenue streams to be able to support an amendment such as this."