Missouri Senate to Boost Public School Funding in Private School Tax Credit Bill

The Senate gave initial approval to a 153-page education package with 20 of the chamber’s 34 members in support.

Missouri State Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, and Sen. Doug Beck, D-Affton, kick off a filibuster of a bill that would expand the state’s K-12 tax-credit scholarships. (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent)

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Missouri Senate Democrats ended their filibuster Tuesday of a bill that seeks to expand the state’s K-12 tax-credit scholarship program — agreeing to let the legislation come to a vote after Republicans added provisions boosting public school funding and teacher retention efforts.

The bill receiving first-round approval by a 20-13 vote in the Senate Tuesday evening is the second version to come to the floor this week. The original 12-page bill ballooned to 76 pages before expanding to 153 pages Tuesday after negotiations.

“There are plenty of things (in the bill) that I dislike,” Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat, told the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Andrew Koenig.

Koenig, a Republican from Manchester, acknowledged the compromise.

“That makes two of us,” he said.

“I know that there are things you wish you could change, and there are things that I wish I could change. At the end of the day, I think we’ve gotten to that right balance,” Arthur said.

Republican Sens. Justin Brown of Rolla, Mike Moon of Ash Grove and Elaine Gannon of DeSoto joined Democrats voting against the bill.

Gannon has spoken against the bill at the committee level and told The Independent that she fears tax-credit scholarships pull money from public schools.

“If you want choice, pay for it. If they’re not happy, there’s other options out there, like charter schools and private schools.” she said.

On the Senate floor Monday evening, she spoke about six counties who removed tax-credit scholarships from their local Republican Party platform.

“These six counties feel if they take public dollars, the government’s going to come in and regulate those parochial schools and private schools,” she said.

Currently only available in charter counties and cities with at least 30,000 residents, the legislation that won initial approval Tuesday would open the state’s K-12 tax-credit scholarship program, MOScholars, statewide.

It would also increase the salary one can make to qualify for the program as low-income from 200% of the amount used to determine reduced lunch to 300%. The income cap, for a family of four, would be $166,500, under this school year’s reduced lunch eligibility.

The bill would additionally increase the amount awarded to those with limited English proficiency, those who qualify for free or reduced lunch and students with individualized education plans.

MOScholars currently has a ceiling of $50 million in tax credits, which it has not reached in its first couple years of the program. The bill seeks to raise the cap to $75 million, with an adjustment tied to the “percent increase or decrease in the amount of state aid distributed to school districts.”

Koenig has launched a campaign for State Treasurer, the office that oversees the MOScholars program.

The bill also would permit charter schools to open in Boone County. Currently, charter schools are only allowed in Kansas City and St. Louis.

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, who is in his last year in the Senate, spoke in favor of adding a charter in his home county.

“We’re just trying to give another option for Columbia,” Rowden, a Republican from Columbia, said on the Senate floor.

These provisions were in place as Senate Democrats led a filibuster lasting roughly four hours before the chamber adjourned at 8 p.m. Monday. After closed-door negotiations, Koenig’s bill was amended to impact 24 additional sections of state law.

The changes include incentives for school districts in charter counties or cities with 30,000 or more residents to have instruction five days a week, changes to the state formula that funds public schools and boosting the minimum teacher salary to $40,000.

The foundation formula, which currently has a multiplier of student attendance, would shift to enrollment in its place. A study by Bruce Baker commissioned by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education suggested the switch last year.

“It is well understood that average daily attendance rates tend to be lower (relative to enrolled, eligible pupils) in districts that are higher in child poverty and in minority concentrations. As such, when state aid is calculated based on average daily attendance, that aid is systematically reduced in higher poverty, higher minority concentration districts,” Baker wrote.

A fiscal note has not been completed for the current version. Koenig said the changes to the state-aid formula, which would be ushered in 10% increments, would cost $70 million for each 10%.

Also added to the bill is the proposed creation of a literacy fund that could receive up to $5 million from the state’s general fund to provide grants for weekly reading programs.

Other additions include a proposal to permit school districts to pay teachers more who fill roles in “hard-to-staff” schools and areas, a boost to the career ladder program and additional pathways to teaching certifications.

One piece of the bill discussed Tuesday would allow people with bachelor’s degrees to complete an 18-hour teacher training program for credentials to teach in Missouri private schools.

Public schools could get more teachers into classrooms through a provision giving bachelor’s degree recipients “subject-area certifications” only for their areas of expertise. The bill also would strike an entrance exam to receive training in education.

Debate ended at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, with Senate leadership promising to send the bill to fiscal oversight in the morning. It needs to be approved by the Senate one more time before being sent to the House.

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: info@missouriindependent.com. Follow Missouri Independent on Facebook and Twitter.

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