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ESA bill takes first step in the Senate

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — After narrowly passing the House last month, a bill seeking to establish an education savings account (ESA) program was heard by a Senate committee this week. 

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 tax liability for contributions to educational assistance programs. The funds would be pooled in ESAs for use on tuition, textbooks, tutoring services, and other costs. 

Christofanelli presented the bill before the Senate Education Committee Tuesday, touting it as a remedy for the state’s education system. 

“I think it is agreed across all ideologies and political beliefs that at times Missouri falls behind in its attempts to provide these students with an education that allows them to realize their full potential,” he said. “This bill seeks to fill that void.”

Eight witnesses spoke in favor of the bill before the committee, including several educators and a representative from the American Federation for Children. Sarah Hartinger, a former teacher and parent, said the bill would provide more choice for parents and bolster the performance of Missouri students.

“Adopting a one-size-fits-all policy from the state level has not been the best solution,” she said. “While this debate over school choice continues every year, Missouri students and education results suffer. As an educator and a mother, this breaks my heart and we must do better.”

While most witnesses and legislators spoke in favor of the program, two people testified in opposition. Keith Rabenberg opposed the bill on behalf of the Missouri School Boards Association, arguing public schools were holding their own. 

“People have said public schools are failing, and I think where that comes from is isolated incidents where particular places turn into talking points,” he said. “It’s nonsense; public school districts — mine and probably the ones you all come from — are doing a good job, and oftentimes do an excellent job.”

The bill was perfected in the House last month with a handful of amendments; one tied the program to an increase of the K-12 transportation line item in the state budget to be funded by at least 40 percent, while another would allow eligible schools to continue counting students who leave the school to continue counting them toward its funding considerations for the year. 

The committee did not take action on the bill Tuesday.