Missouri bill would expand access to private schools, but also cut tax base
The Missouri Senate could soon approve legislation that would give tax credits to people who donate money to fund private school scholarships.
Under Senate Bill 32, anyone could make donations to nonprofit groups that would use the funds to set up education savings accounts.
Then, parents could use those accounts to pay tuition at the school of their choice, including religious schools.
“The idea here is to improve education on behalf of any students that just don’t exactly match the model that we have in public schools," said Republican state Sen. Ed Emery of Lamar, the bill’s sponsor.
“It tells parents of the entire student body that you can be engaged in the education of your son or daughter. There are options available to you and it’s up to you how you design the education for your child.”
Tax-credit scholarships are a way states can support funding for private schools without directly using tax dollars to pay for vouchers that allow students to attend the school of their choice.
Emery said he is sponsoring a tax-credit scholarship bill instead of a school voucher bill because he wants parents to have the option of enrolling in religious schools.
Missouri, like many states, has a constitutional ban known as the Blaine Amendment that bars the use of public money for religious purposes.
“In Missouri we have a particularly stringent Blaine Amendment, and it’s a concern that trying to test that Blaine Amendment could delay implementation for months, if not years,” Emery said. “And there’s not a real assurance that we would win that case.”
“There have been a number of court opinions issued that tax credits never become public dollars, and therefore they’re not subject to the Blaine Amendments,” Emery added.
According to NPR, tax-credit scholarships might also be President Donald Trump's administration's best bet for expanding school choice nationally.
Opponents of tax-credit scholarships argue that they divert money away from public schools.
“Since I’ve been president, Local 420 has been opposed to the tax credit bills that have been submitted almost annually,” said Mary Armstrong, the president of the St. Louis chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.
“It’s just another word for vouchers,” Armstrong said. “It’s going to reduce the money that comes into the state, which will reduce the amount that will be coming into the school district. So I just see that it’s going to be very harmful for public education as we know it now.”
Emery agreed that the bill would lower the amount of taxes collected by the state, but argued that the money would still be going to education — just not necessarily to public education.
The measure caps total donations at $25 million annually, which means that amount could be diverted from the state’s general revenue each year.
In the bill’s current form, any child who has previously attended public school at any point in their education or is about to start kindergarten or first grade is eligible for a tax-credit scholarship.
Children also don’t have to be low-income to receive funding.
Emery said he doesn’t want to make the program need-based. He said he also doesn't want to disqualify families whose children are already enrolled in private school.
“I don’t know that I want to say they have to continue to make those severe sacrifices even though their economic condition may be very similar to someone else who has their child in a public school and claims they can’t afford private school,” Emery said.
It’s unclear whether Governor Eric Greitens will sign the bill if it passes both houses, but in his State of the State address, Greitens said he supported tax-credit scholarships for children with special needs.
“We also need to make sure that every child in Missouri, especially those kids with special needs, gets a fair shot at the American Dream,” Greitens told the state assembly. “I will work with you to implement Education Savings Accounts for children with special needs.”
Emery said he has been in touch with the governor’s staff to make sure the final bill is acceptable.
When he first introduced the bill, only children with special needs and children in foster care were eligible.
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