© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Missouri House OKs State-Sponsored Scholarships For Private School, Excludes Rural Areas

Rep. Phil Christophanelli, R-St. Charles, sponsored the legislation and said it was not a "silver bullet" but would help some children throughout the state.
Tim Bommel
Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Charles, sponsored the legislation and said it was not a "silver bullet" but would help some children throughout the state.

The Missouri House approvedlegislation Thursday that creates a new program allowing families to apply for state-sponsored scholarships to send children to private schools.

The bill passed82-71 — just enough votes to send it to the Senate.

“Missouri is not serving all of our children in a way that they deserve,” said Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Charles, the sponsor of the proposal. “We are not providing a system of education that allows every child to realize their full potential.”

The bill creates what is called the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Account and falls in line with the Republican effort of so-called school choice. It would operate similar to other ESAs throughout the nation, in which a taxpayer can make a contribution to an approved nonprofit education assistance organization. The contributor will receive a tax credit equal to 50% of the donation and can be deducted from their tax liability. Total tax credits cannot exceed $50 million per year, and donors do not get to choose which student receives the donation.

Christofanelli, who has championed this legislation for years, said he worked with many Republican and Democratic members in the chamber in order to muster enough votes for it to pass. He said that during those negotiations, he eventually carved out rural school districts, and only students who reside in a city that has a population greater than 30,000 are eligible.

“That was hard for me,” Christofanelli said. “I think that everybody in this state should be able to access this program. But the reality is, in many rural districts, unfortunately the public school is the only place to go.”

Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson, fiercely opposed the legislation and said it uses “poor kids and Black kids to experiment on.”
Tim Bommel
Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson, opposed the legislation.

Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson, fiercely opposed the legislation, pointing out that some who were expected to vote in favor did not want their districts included.

“If everyone in here thinks it’s such a good program, why not do it for the entirety of the state?” asked Proudie. “I just want to make sure that we are crystal clear that there were some people that weren’t going to vote for it for their children and for their community until there was a concession made to affect my community and my children.”

She said the legislation uses “poor kids and Black kids to experiment on.” She noted that the scholarships would only cover a portion of private school tuition, again excluding students from underprivileged areas.

“If we’re only going to give these kids $6,500, where’s the other $4,000 going to come from because it’s about $11,000 to send them to private school. That doesn’t help my community. My community doesn’t have $4,000 to send to school,” Proudie said.

Rep. Ian Mackey, D-St. Louis, echoed Proudie and asked the sponsor to identify which representatives asked him to exclude their districts. Christofanelli said Mackey could inquire of anyone in the chamber.

“That fact that folks are awfully shy to stand up and say I think this policy is a bad idea,” Mackey said. “I’m not going to bring it back to my district, I’m going to send it to folks in St. Louis and Kansas City, and they can’t even admit it on the floor.”

Rep. LaKeySha Bosley, D-St. Louis, won adoption of anamendment that would not allow the program unless 40% of the education transportation budget is funded. While she was absent for the final vote on Thursday, she did give initial approval to the legislation on Wednesday. She said the amendment was important because she wanted to ensure those who may be eligible to receive the scholarship funding had the means to get to the private school.

Many other Democrats in the chamber voted down the proposal arguing that public state dollars should not be diverted to private school education, and their obligation was to ensure schools were meeting the needs of all children.

House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, who is an advocate for more school choice measures said voting for the legislation was "the right thing to do."
Tim Bommel
House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, who is an advocate for more school choice measures, said voting for the legislation was "the right thing to do."

But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed that the coronavirus has highlighted the weaknesses within the Missouri public school system. House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, got emotional when testifying in support of the proposal, pointing out that some parents didn’t have a choice but to keep their kids home while their education suffered.

“I don’t want to hear anymore about ‘oh my gosh, my kids. Look at the virus,’” said Vescovo, who has been an advocate for more school choice measures. “My kids haven’t been in school. My kids have had such a limited amount of school since March. None of you who vote against this bill get to talk about that ever again.”

Christofanelli said he doesn’t believe this is where education reform stops, and he recognized it was not “a silver bullet.” But he said that it’s a bill he was able to get passed after five years of work and that it will make a difference for some students. He said he hopes other districts will want to see it expanded.

The measure now moves to the Senate, which is considering its own sweeping package to expand school choice measures and increase funding for charter schools.

Jaclyn is the Jefferson City statehouse reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.