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Parson signs new ESA program into law

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Gov. Mike Parson signed off on an education savings account (ESA) bill Wednesday, enacting a new program proponents say will increase school choice for Missourians.

HB 349, sponsored by Rep. Phil Christofanelli, establishes 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 students to use on tuition, textbooks, tutoring services, and other costs. The program would apply to taxpayers in areas with populations at or exceeding 30,000.

Missouri and Kentucky are the first states in the country to enact ESAs funded through tax credits, according to Forbes.

“Every student in Missouri deserves an opportunity to access an education that will allow them to realize their true potential,” Christofanelli told The Missouri Times. “HB 349 will make a significant difference in the lives of thousands of Missouri students. Today marks the first step in a long path toward universal school choice — the success of this program will pave the way for transformative expansion of school choice in the years to come.”

Gov. Mike Parson signed Rep. Phil Christofanelli’s ESA bill at the state Capitol on July 14. (THE MISSOURI TIMES/CAMERON GERBER)

Parson emphasized the impact school choice would have on the next generation of Missourians, saying the program was an important step forward to ensuring a better tomorrow.

“We’ve got to make sure we give the kids in our state the opportunity to get an education,” Parson said. “You want to stop a bullet? This is how you stop it.”

Missouri officials weren’t the only ones chiming in about the bill; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush praised the bill’s passage on social media, saying it was a “life-changing day for millions of Missourians.”

SB 86, a school board election bill also signed Wednesday, includes an amendment from Christofanelli further altering the program. It halved the number of available credits to $25 million for the first year — with a total maximum for the program at $50 million — and capped the number of organizations that can offer the program at 10. 

Christofanelli proposed the amendment after conversations with Senate Appropriations Chair Dan Hegeman, who sponsored SB 86, to assuage concerns over the amount of money being doled out by the new program while allowing future legislators the option to raise the cap. 

“Sometimes we have to make compromises, and I’ve made a lot of compromises to get this bill off of the House floor and to the Senate,” Christofanelli said. 

Christofanelli’s bill narrowly passed the House early in the session after a speech on the floor from Speaker Rob Vescovo, a vocal proponent of the legislation. Prior to its passage, an amendment 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, calling it an “experiment” aimed at urban communities with witnesses in committee saying Missouri’s public schools were holding their own without the program in place. Despite consternation in the lower chamber, the bill passed the Senate with little fanfare shortly before the end of session.

“For more than a decade students, parents, and teachers have been pleading for the right to choose the best education for their child,” Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri’s (CEAM) Executive Director Laura Slay said. “Today marks an historic victory for Missouri students desperate for better educational options.”

Christofanelli’s bill joins a long list of priority legislation signed into law over the past few weeks. Other bills established a Wayfair tax, created COVID liability protections for businesses, and set limitations on public health orders.