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Missouri lawmakers eye expansion of school choice program

by Tessa Weinberg | January 11, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.
Buildings within the Missouri Capitol Complex offer a glimpse into the state's law-making process.


Coming off last year's success passing a tax credit to fund scholarships to pay for private school tuition, school choice advocates hope Missouri lawmakers will expand the program before it's even gotten off the ground.

But even with support from key legislative leaders, the idea faces long odds.

Senate Bill 841, sponsored by Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, would remove many of the limits imposed on the iteration of the program passed last year. That includes striking geographic boundaries that kept the program out of rural areas and lifting a $25 million funding cap lawmakers put in place.

"It's basically the voucher system is what it would be," Brattin said, "administered by the (state) Treasurer, and the monies that would be associated with your kid going to your local school would then go to you as the parent, or to that account, and you could deem to where those kids go."

Any push to expand the program's reach would have two key allies who said they support the idea: House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee Chairman Chuck Basye and Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Cindy O'Laughlin.

But that might not be enough.

The bill establishing the tax credit program eked out of the House last year without any votes to spare. In the months since it passed, some of those votes in support are no longer in the Legislature, likely leaving any school choice bill short of the support it needs to pass.

"I fully support expanding the ESA program to make it fully functional as far as an alternative to the traditional public school," said Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Manchester Republican who was the Senate handler of the bill that founded the ESA program last year. "However, I do think it's not something that's likely to pass."

Basye, R-Rocheport, agreed the shrinking GOP majority in the House puts the idea in danger.

"We might not have the votes necessary to get those passed," he said, "unless we can persuade some members to change their vote in order to export an initiative."

Expanding ESA

Brattin's bill would not delete the language lawmakers passed last year that established the "Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program," but he said the expanded program his bill would create would be the "the whole kit and caboodle" -- and likely be more widely used.

It would dramatically expand the current ESA program's reach by removing major concessions that had been added in order to secure enough support for its passage last year.

Among the requirements to participate in the current ESA program, students must live in a county with a charter form of government or a city with at least 30,000 residents -- limiting the bill to the state's major metros, like St. Louis, Kansas City, Columbia, Cape Girardeau, Jefferson City, Springfield and Joplin.

That stipulation, along with a provision that caps the amount of tax credits that can be issued in the program's first year at $25 million and a requirement tying the program to state transportation aid being funded at 40 percent, were changes added over the course of last year's session to gain support.

Brattin's bill doesn't include geographic limits -- which have long been a feature that's been centered around the debate on expanding charter schools in Missouri -- and would open the program to students across the state. It also does not include a transportation funding trigger.

"Why, because of your ZIP code or where you're located, should you be stymied from being able to have access to go somewhere that's going to educate your kids?" Brattin said.

Rather than being funded through donations to nonprofits that donors could receive tax credits for, the expanded program under Brattin's bill would be funded by an appropriation state lawmakers would allocate.

In order to receive the funds, which would equal the amount of state aid students' resident districts would have normally received, parents would also have to agree they would not enroll their student in a public or charter school -- limiting options to private school, home schooling or virtual education.

The bill would also change the order in which eligible students had been prioritized to receive funds, and remove the prioritization of special needs students with an approved individualized education plan, or IEP.

Instead, the bill would first prioritize students who had previously received grants. Next would be students whose families' income is at or below the income standard to qualify for free or reduced price lunch -- a little more than $49,000 for a family of four -- and lastly to students whose families' income is two times that amount -- a little more than $98,000 for a family of four.

If the number of eligible students exceeds the amount of funding, then a lottery would be held to select students for remaining grants. Once a student receives a grant, they would remain eligible regardless of income changes.

The funds would also be managed by "private financial management firms" rather than nonprofits, but still be overseen by the state Treasurer's office.

Koenig, who had not yet reviewed Brattin's bill, said he would be in favor of expanding the ESA program, but noted he personally did not file a bill to do so, "because there's going to be a lot of opposition until we see it up and running."

Work has been underway in the Treasurer's Office to implement the program. Emails obtained through a records request under Missouri's open records law show Treasurer's Office staff have weighed questions on how the program will function, like when tax credits can be authorized under the bill, and have looked at how states with similar programs operate, like Florida.

Mary Compton, a spokeswoman for Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick, said Friday that Fitzpatrick is supportive of eliminating the geographic limitations in the ESA program and increasing funding to provide more students access to it.

It remains to be seen if lawmakers will attempt to make less sweeping changes to the current ESA program.

At the end of the session last year, concerns were raised about a transportation trigger that kicks off the program being tied to transportation funding allocated in fiscal year 2021, rather than each subsequent year.

Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters, and the sponsor of the bill that founded the ESA program, previously said the trigger was written as intended. Koenig said last week he didn't feel the trigger needed to be changed.

Meanwhile, opponents of the program say they're still not satisfied with its current parameters and would like to see it implemented before expansions are made.

"We should be investing in programs where we're seeing great outcomes. And before we even have any data to expand a program that hasn't currently been implemented, I don't think that that's the right approach," said Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat who voted against the ESA's passage last year.

Arthur, a former teacher who's taught in a charter school, said she hopes to see the ESA program amended, including to more strongly target aiding the students it was intended to prioritize, like low-income students.

Other education issues on deck

Lawmakers have also refiled school choice bills to tackle discrepancies in charter school funding, access to virtual education and to expand charter schools.

One proposal that, like the ESA bill, narrowly passed out of the House last year was a bill that would create a voluntary open enrollment system within public schools. This year, a version of the program is also being sponsored by O'Laughlin, R-Shelbina and the chair of the Senate Education Committee, who said she hopes it would help schools be more responsive to parents.

"Schools need to understand and accept that parents are the primary factor in kids' lives," O'Laughlin said. "They're not all perfect and all that, but this kind of thing makes them accept that fact."

A bipartisan group of senators have also identified improving literacy as an issue they hope to collaborate on through legislation this session.

"I'm hoping we can find some consensus and that we all again focus on the common sense areas where there's agreement as opposed to what are polarizing, and in my mind, unproductive topics," Arthur said.

But Republican lawmakers' have signaled their intent this session to push legislation born out of backlash to school boards and discussion on how issues of race and history are taught in the classroom.

The first bills on deck to be heard in the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee today include legislation that would establish versions of a "Parents' Bill of Rights" and to allow for school board members to be recalled.

The Missouri Independent is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.


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