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ESA bill heads to governor’s desk

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Despite extensive conversations during its time in the House, a bill establishing an education savings account (ESA) program in Missouri quickly passed the Senate Thursday — and is perhaps the only education reform bill to see success this legislative session.

HB 349, sponsored by Rep. Phil Christofanelli, would establish the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program. The program would allow taxpayers to claim a tax credit of up to 50 percent of their liability for contributions to educational assistance programs. The funds would be pooled in ESAs for use on tuition, textbooks, tutoring services, and other costs. The program would apply to taxpayers in areas with populations at or exceeding 30,000.

It passed the Senate by a vote of 20-13, with GOP Sens. Lincoln Hough, Sandy Crawford, and Karla Eslinger joining Democrats in voting against it. 

“It’s a great day for Missouri students,” Christofanelli told The Missouri Times. “The General Assembly rose to the occasion to deliver for students who are in need across our state, and I look forward to seeing this program implemented to make a real difference in the lives of kids in our state.”

Despite lengthy floor debate in the House earlier this year, the only line of questioning in the upper chamber was for clarification on the reach of the program. The bill passed without a substitute or amendments from the Senate. 

“This is important to help kids. This provides another option for kids who may need that option,” handler Sen. Andrew Koenig said on the floor. “The reality is every child is different, and we don’t know what that child needs but parents do. It could be a child is in a great school but they’re getting bullied and they need a different environment. Who knows what the needs of that child are?”

In January I stood up and promised the senate would pass an education reform bill this year. Today my Republican colleagues came together to deliver a decisive victory for Missouri children,” Senate Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden said in a statement. “HB 349 provides targeted empowerment scholarships for the neediest children and ties program enrollment to public school funding increases. This is a win for Missouri kids and Missouri education — and we’re just getting started.”

Senate Minority Floor Leader John Rizzo decried the bill’s passage in a statement, saying the measure would detract from public schools. 

“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,” Rizzo said. “I’m proud of the Democratic Caucus for voting unanimously against this legislation. I would encourage any communities upset with this legislation to take a hard look at the Republicans they send to Jefferson City.”

HB 349 passed the House by a vote of 82-71 in February after a speech on the floor from Speaker Rob Vescovo, a vocal proponent of the legislation. Prior to its passage, an amendment from Rep. LaKeySha Bosley was added that would trigger the program once 40 percent or more of the K-12 transportation line item in the budget had been funded. 

Democrats in the House opposed the measure as an “experiment” aimed at urban communities while witnesses in committee said Missouri’s public schools were holding their own. 

This story has been updated.