Missouri students as soon as next year could have access to scholarships for private school through a new tax credit program signed Wednesday by Gov. Mike Parson.
Under the voucher-style program, private donors would give money to nonprofits that in turn would dole out the scholarships. The money could be used for private school tuition, transportation to school, extra tutoring and other education-related expenses.
Donors to the program would get state tax credits equal to the amount they give, an indirect way to divert state tax dollars to private education.
Parson's signature represents a long-sought victory for primarily GOP advocates of so-called school choice legislation, which has struggled to gain traction with Missouri Republicans in rural areas where public schools likely would be students' only option regardless of changes in state law.
"This legislation will empower students and parents with access to resources and educational opportunities that best meet the individual needs of their child," Sen. Andrew Koenig, a suburban St. Louis Republican, said in a statement.
Critics of school voucher programs have said they funnel money away from public schools by drawing students out of those districts, leading to a drop in attendance and a subsequent drop in funding.
"Missouri is 49th in the country in average starting teachers' salaries," Melissa Randol, who heads the Missouri School Boards' Association, said in a statement. "We need to invest in Missouri's high quality teachers, rather than funnel money to institutions that have no accountability to taxpayers for how they spend taxpayers' dollars or how they educate our children."
Only K-12 students in the state's largest cities - those with at least 30,000 residents - would be able to get the scholarships. That includes St. Louis, Kansas City and many of their suburbs. It also covers Springfield, Columbia, Cape Girardeau, Jefferson City, Joplin and St. Joseph.
The program also would be limited to students with disabilities on individual education plans and children from low-income families.
Tax credits for vouchers will be capped at $25 million for the first year and could increase with the rate of inflation to as much as $50 million.
Lawmakers further restricted the program to kick in only if they budget at least 40 percent of the minimum public school transportation funding called for by law. If funding for school busing drops below that threshold, the voucher program would be canceled for that year.
Missouri lawmakers provided that much funding this year.
Missouri negotiators delayed the possible financial hit to districts by adding a provision to the bill that will continue to count voucher students in their home districts for funding purposes for five years after the program begins, even if those students switch schools.