After last year’s success in passing a tax credit to fund scholarships to pay for private school tuition, school choice advocates hope lawmakers will expand the program even before it expands. ‘it does not start.

But even with the backing of key legislative leaders, the idea faces long chances.

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

“It’s basically the voucher system, that’s what it would be,” said Brattin, “administered by the (state) treasurer, and the money that would be associated with your kid going into the your local school would then go to you as a parent, or to that account, and you could figure out where those kids go.

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

But that might not be enough.

The bill establishing the tax credit program barely left the house Last year speechless to spare. In the months since its passage, some of those supportive votes are no longer in the legislature, likely leaving any school choice bill without the support it needs to pass.

“I fully support expanding the ESA curriculum to make it fully functional as an alternative to traditional public schooling,” said Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Republican from Manchester who was the Senate project manager. law that founded the ESA program last year. “However, I think it is not something that is likely to pass.”

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

“We may not have the necessary votes to get them through,” he said, “unless we can persuade some members to change their vote in order to export an initiative.”

ESA extension

State Senator Rick Brattin, directly behind the podium, is joined by his family and supporters, including his wife, Athena Brattin, daughter Hannah, on the far right, and son Garrett, to announce his candidacy for the seat of the 4th congressional district. (Rudi Keller / Independent Missouri)

Brattin’s bill would not remove 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 full kit and caboodle “- and would probably be more widely used.

This would significantly expand the scope of the current ESA program by removing the major concessions that had been added in order to gain sufficient support for its adoption last year.

Among the requirements to participate in the current ESA program, students must live in a county with some chartered form of government or in a city of at least 30,000 inhabitants, which limits the bill to major metros. state, such as St. Louis, Kansas City, Columbia. , Cape Girardeau, Jefferson City, Springfield and Joplin.

This stipulation, as well as a provision which caps the amount of tax credits that can be granted during the first year of the program at $ 25 million and a requirement linking the program to public transport assistance financed at 40%. , were any changes added during last year’s session to get support.

Brattin’s bill does not include geographic boundaries – which have long been a feature which centered on the debate over the expansion of charter schools in Missouri – and open the program to students across the state. It also does not include a transport funding trigger.

“Why, because of your zip code or where you are, should you be denied access to a place that will educate your children?” Said Brattin.

Rather than being funded by donations to nonprofit organizations for which donors could receive tax credits, the expanded program provided for by Brattin’s bill would be funded by a credit that lawmakers in the State would allocate.

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

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

Instead, the bill would first prioritize students who had previously received scholarships. Next come students whose family income is equal to or less than the income standard to qualify for a free or reduced price lunch – just over $ 49,000 for a family of four – and finally students whose income family is twice that amount – just over $ 98,000 for a family of four.

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

The funds would also be managed by “private financial management companies” rather than non-profit organizations, but would still be overseen by the state treasurer’s office.

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Koenig, who had yet to consider Brattin’s bill, said he would be in favor of expanding ESA’s program, but noted that he personally had not tabled a bill. to do it, “because there’s going to be a lot of opposition until we see it.” and run.

Job is underway at the treasurer’s office to implement the program. Emails obtained through an application for registration under the Missouri Open Records Act show that staff at the treasurer’s office weighed in questions about how the program would work, such as when tax credits can be licensed under the bill, and examined the operation of states with similar programs, such as Florida.

Mary Compton, spokesperson for Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick, said on Friday that Fitzpatrick supported removing geographic limitations from the ESA program and increasing funding to allow more students to access it.

It remains to be seen whether lawmakers will attempt to make less drastic changes to ESA’s current agenda.

At the end of last year’s session, concerns have been raised about a transport trigger that initiates the program being tied to transportation funding allocated in fiscal 2021, rather than in each subsequent year.

Representative Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters and the sponsor of the Bill that founded the ESA program, previously said the trigger was written as expected. Koenig said last week that he didn’t think the trigger needed to be changed.

Meanwhile, opponents of the program say they are still not happy with its current settings and would like to see it implemented before any extensions are made.

“We should invest in programs where we get great results. And before we even have data to scale up a program that hasn’t been implemented yet, I don’t think that’s the right approach, ”said Senator Lauren Arthur, a Democrat from Kansas City who voted. against the passage of ESA last year.

Arthur, a former teacher who taught at a charter school, said she hoped to see ESA’s curriculum changed, especially to target aid more heavily to students it was supposed to prioritize, such as students at low income.

Other education issues on the bridge

Representative Doug Richey and Cindy O'Laughlin
Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, and Senator Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, at a Joint Committee on Critical Race Theory Education hearing on July 19, 2021 (Photo by Tim Bommel / Missouri House Communications)

Lawmakers have also introduced school choice bills to address gaps in charter school funding, access to virtual education and to expand charter schools.

A proposal that, like the ESA bill, was narrowly rejected by the House last year was a bill that would create a free and voluntary registration system in public schools. This year, a version of the program is also sponsored by O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina and the chair of the Senate education committee, who said she hoped this would help schools be more receptive to parents.

“Schools need to understand and accept that parents are the primary factor in children’s lives,” O’Laughlin said. “They’re not all perfect and stuff, but that sort of thing makes them accept that fact.”

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

“I hope we can find consensus and all of us focus again on the areas of common sense where there is agreement as opposed to what is polarizing and, in my mind, unproductive topics,” said Arthur.

But Republican lawmakers have signaled their intention this session pass a law born of a backlash to school boards and a discussion of how issues of race and history are taught in the classroom.

the first bills on the bridge to hear in the House’s elementary and secondary education committee on Tuesday, include legislation that would establish versions of a “parent’s bill of rights” and allow the recall of school board members.