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School choice measure wins approval in Missouri Senate, now heads to governor’s desk

School choice measure wins approval in Missouri Senate, now heads to governor’s desk

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Gov. Parson delivers the State of the State address

Gov. Mike Parson delivers the State of the State address in the Senate chambers of the Missouri State Capitol Building on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. The speech was moved from the House chambers over coronavirus concerns. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — Students in the St. Louis area could draw on scholarship funds in order to attend the school of their choice under a significant shift in education policy endorsed by the Missouri Senate on Thursday.

After similar efforts to expand school choice ran aground in the Legislature for several years, the 20-13 vote sends the legislation to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk.

“This is a bill that is good for kids. It provides another option,” said Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, who carried the bill in the Senate.

All 10 Democrats voted against the measure. Republican Sens. Karla Eslinger of Wasola, Lincoln Hough of Springfield and Sandy Crawford of Buffalo also voted “no.”

The proposal, sponsored in the House by Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters, establishes the “Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program.”

It would allow private donors to give money to nonprofits that in turn would provide the scholarships, which could be used to pay for private school tuition, transportation to school and other education-related expenses. Donors to the program would get state tax credits equal to the amount they give.

The proposal could mean $50 million less in tax collections per year once people claim the credit, according to a state analysis, causing opponents to worry the program would harm the state’s ability to fund other priorities while money flows to private entities.

Missouri Senate Democratic Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, sharply criticized passage of the voucher legislation.

“This bill will drain $75 million away from public schools each year so certain families can get paid to homeschool their kids or get a kickback for sending them to private schools. I’m proud of the Democratic caucus for voting unanimously against this legislation,” Rizzo said in a statement. “I would encourage any communities upset with this legislation to take a hard look at the Republicans they send to Jefferson City.”

Passage of the legislation came after a minimum amount of debate. It was among a number of high-profile bills awaiting action as the Legislature heads into its final week of work before a May 14 adjournment.

Other issues on tap include the state budget, which is scheduled to be voted on Friday, and a 12.5 cent per gallon increase in the gas tax that is pending in the House.

In February, the measure squeaked out of the House on an 82-71 vote, winning the minimum number of “yes” votes necessary to advance to the upper chamber. Thirty Republicans voted against the measure.

One of the “yes” votes in the House was cast by former Rep. Rick Roeber, R-Lee’s Summit, who was kicked out of the chamber in April after his adult children say he sexually and physically abused them when they were young.

“If a bill impacting kids can only pass the House when supported by an accused pedophile, what’s that say about the bill?” the Senate Democrats tweeted as debate was underway.

The legislation affects only students in charter counties, or cities with more than 30,000 people, could participate — meaning students in St. Louis, and the counties of St. Louis, St. Charles and Jefferson would be eligible in the St. Louis area, as well as students in the largest suburbs around Kansas City, Springfield and Columbia.

Democratic critics said that if the program was good for the state, it should apply to the entire state.

The legislation is House Bill 349.

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