Missouri lawmakers poised for debate over open enrollment, private school scholarships
The next few weeks of legislative action are primed for debate over opening up access for Missouri students to leave their neighborhood schools — though escalating dysfunction in the Senate may change those plans.
Proposals to allow open enrollment between school districts and expand tax-credit scholarships for private schools are among the first bills to clear legislative committees. Eight more bills have had committee hearings already or are teed up for hearings this week.
After years of failed efforts to get their priorities across the finish line, advocates for making major changes to Missouri’s public school system feel they have the momentum.
“The days are gone of us relying on the old-guard talking point that traditional public school is the only way to go and it’s the only thing that the government’s ever going to support or value or put in front of parents,” said Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican.
But resistance in the House, coupled with gridlock in the Senate, could ultimately derail those efforts.
“Everybody thinks the House can pass anything. But when it comes to schools and school choice, that’s an area that a large number of people have broad opinions on,” Republican Rep. Brad Pollitt of Sedalia told The Independent. “So to say that the House can pass anything, that is not true.”
GOP infighting has plagued the Senate in the first three weeks of the legislative session, with the years-long fight between Republican leadership and a minority within the caucus once again grinding legislative action to a halt.
On Thursday, with the Senate unable to function due to a filibuster by dissident senators who have converged under the umbrella of the “Freedom Caucus,” Rowden hinted at retribution.
“I have never ever done anything punitive…If (behavior) doesn’t change and we don’t figure out a way to act like adults and act like the people who sent us here have a stake in this game, that’s going to change,” Rowden told state Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Manchester Republican, during last week’s nine-hour filibuster.
Yet one of the main areas of agreement between leadership and the dissident senators is education.
Koenig, who chairs the Senate Education and Workforce Development committee, is the sponsor of two bills that leverage tax credits to fund private and home education. His legislation that would expand MOScholars, a K-12 scholarship program through the treasurer’s office, is set to be debated in the Senate next week. It is the second bill scheduled for discussion on the Senate floor this year.
Koenig is running for State Treasurer and would administer the program if elected.
The MOScholars program is currently struggling to meet the current demand for scholarships. Koenig’s bill would make more students eligible without providing a solution to the funding woes.
Rowden has praised Koenig’s legislation, even voicing support for a state appropriate for private school scholarships, though he acknowledged that would be an incredibly difficult thing to pass.
“This is going to be slow movement because it is a divisive issue on this floor,” he said. “But I would vote for anything and everything that allows for every kid and parent to have choice.”
Senate Majority Leader Cindy O’Laughlin, a Shelbina Republican, told The Independent she would also be open to adding a state appropriation for MOScholars.
“Why not?” she said.
“We don’t mind spending billions on something that’s not working,” O’Laughlin said, saying she was disappointed with public schools’ math and reading scores. “So I’d certainly be open to that discussion.”
Last week, Koenig added a provision to his MoScholars expansion that would allow charter schools to operate in St. Louis, St. Charles and Boone counties. His committee has not heard public testimony on expanding charter schools yet this year.
Koenig is also sponsoring another way for families to fund private schools that passed his committee last week 5-4 — with Republican Sen. Elaine Gannon of De Soto joining the committee’s Democrats in opposition. She told Koenig the proposal would drain the “public school money away.”
The fiscal note on the bill estimated $900 million to $1.5 billion in state expenditures.
Koenig told The Independent that his narrower scholarship bill, with charter school expansion attached, is more likely to find success this year.
Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, a Democrat from Independence, told reporters state funds would be better spent on teacher recruitment and retention efforts.
“The two education bills we heard this week in committee would put somewhere between a $900 million to a $1.5 billion hole in our budget,” he said, “making it impossible to raise teacher pay.”
Missouri ranks 47th in average teacher pay and 50th in average starting teacher salaries, according to the Missouri National Education Association.
Across the Capitol rotunda in the House, education bills have faced long odds and traditionally squeaked out of the GOP-dominated chamber with the bare minimum of support required to pass.
A bill sponsored by Pollitt passed the House last year and was set to clear the Senate after it was tacked onto legislation on teacher recruitment and retention. The bill seeks to allow public school districts to accept students from neighboring communities, with state funding following the students.
Senate gridlock killed the bill’s chances.
“I want us to pass open enrollment and start with school choice within the public school system,” Pollitt told The Independent. “I’m open to listening to (other proposals). But I’m more wanting to do some things within the public school system first and foremost.”
Pollitt touts his legislation as a way to increase choice for families while supporting public schools, although the Missouri National Education Association, Missouri State Teachers Association, St. Louis Public Schools, the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City and the Missouri Council of School Administrators testified in opposition to his legislation.
The bill passed the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, which Pollit chairs, on an 11-6 vote.
Although it didn’t get floor time in the Senate last year, O’Laughlin said she support’s Pollitt’s legislation.
Another sign of the issue’s momentum in the House is the creation this year of the Special Committee on Education Reform. Pollitt said he was informed of the committee prior to its formation.
The committee has already held a hearing on bills that would authorize charter schools in St. Louis, St. Charles and Boone Counties sponsored by representatives in the area. It will meet again Monday evening to debate virtual schools and superintendent pay.
The committee has not yet scheduled a vote for the charter-school bills.
This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom.