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GOP-led Missouri House OKs private school scholarship bill

February 25, 2021 GMT

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — A bill to allow scholarships for low-income Missouri children to attend private schools barely passed the state House Thursday, showing how divisive the issue is even in a Republican supermajority Legislature.

The GOP-led House voted 82-71 to pass the bill, just meeting the 82-vote threshold needed to advance the measure to the Senate, which is also led by Republicans.

Republican bill sponsor Rep. Phil Christofanelli said the goal is to give low-income families the option to send their children to private schools, which wealthier families already can afford to do.

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He said Missouri’s current education system isn’t serving all students well and urged lawmakers to give this program a chance.

“There’s a lot of strong opinions on both sides of the aisle about this program,” Christofanelli said. “But we’ve all been here for a long time, and I don’t feel like we’ve tried anything new.”

Under the proposal, private donors would give money to nonprofits that in turn would dole out the scholarships to low-income families. 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.

Primarily Republican lawmakers for years have been trying to pass what advocates describe as school-choice bills to increase K-12 students’ access to charter, virtual and private schools.

The effort has high-profile advocates this year, both in new Republican House Speaker Rob Vescovo and Republican Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden.

But even with backing from Republican leaders, the scholarship bill barely eked through the House. That’s because some Republicans joined with Democrats to vote against it over concerns about taking away resources from public schools to pay for private education.

Even though the program wouldn’t be directly funded from taxpayer dollars, it would be supported by tax credits that would reduce the amount of revenue the state collects.

Both Republicans and Democrats warned that would mean a smaller state budget and could pressure lawmakers to cut funding for public education.

“There will be public schools who will see kids leave and get the opportunities that they deserve,” Democratic Rep. Ian Mackey said. “The problem is there will be kids left behind as well, and when those kids are left behind and the resources are drained, then what?”

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Lawmakers on Wednesday amended the bill to require continued state funding for five years to public schools for students who leave under the program, an effort to address concerns about reducing public education money.

The House also added a provision requiring the Legislature to meet higher funding levels for public school transportation in order for the bill to take effect.

Christofanelli also limited the bill to students in cities of 30,000 people or more to draw support from rural Republicans skeptical of bringing the scholarships to their areas. But the move also turned off some Republicans who want the program in their smaller cities.

The Senate also is working on big education policy changes.

The upper chamber earlier this week considered a more sweeping education bill that would create a tax-break scholarship program, expand charter schools, modify the funding formula for public school and incentivize public schools to let home-school students play on their sports teams, among other things.

But the Senate set the bill aside after adopting it.

Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden said Thursday that negotiations are ongoing. He said the Senate version will include both a charter school expansion and the creation of scholarships for public school students to attend other private or public schools.

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Associated Press writer David A. Lieb contributed to this report from Jefferson City, Missouri.