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Missouri legislature passes expansive K-12 education bill that includes raise for teachers

Fog rises off the Missouri River in front of the Missouri State Capitol building on the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 3, in Jefferson City, Mo.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri legislature passed an omnibus education bill Thursday. The bill is only the second passed by both chambers this session.

The Missouri legislature passed a sweeping education bill Thursday, including raising the minimum teacher salary to $40,000, recalculating the state’s school funding formula and significantly expanding the state’s tax credit scholarship program.

The House passed the Senate bill 82-69 — the minimum number of votes needed. Because the House did not make any changes to the Senate bill, the legislation now goes to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk. The bill is the second piece of legislation passed by both the House and Senate this session.

“This is the most substantive investment in public education that this state has ever seen,” Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters, said on the House floor before the vote. "This is going to be a hard vote for some people, but it's also probably going to be the most important vote you ever take.”

Within the roughly 150-page bill is a large expansion to the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Account program. The account allows families to get funding to send their children to the school of their choice, including private schools.

The account is funded by private donors, who then receive tax credits from the state.

Through the bill, the amount of tax credits that would be allocated each year would increase to $75 million. It also widens the program to be accessible across the state, as well as increases the maximum income a family can earn to qualify for the funds.

“We're prioritizing those scholarships for low-income students. And we're removing the geographic restrictions that arbitrarily denied people access to a program that works,” Christofanelli said.

Critics of the program say it takes away dollars from public education and gives them to private schools.

“From my personal standpoint, I really saw this bill as a moving of public money to private institutions,” House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said.

When the bill was originally introduced in the Senate, it only included the language that expanded the scholarship account program.

Another Republican-supported measure in the bill was the expansion of charter schools to Boone County.

Currently, charter schools are only allowed in St. Louis and Kansas City, though as recent as this session, bills have been introduced to allow them in St. Louis and St. Charles counties.

The four Democratic representatives from the Columbia area spoke against the legislation on the House floor.

“This bill is poison. Our schools are accredited. We don't need this bill,” said Rep. David Tyson Smith, D-Columbia. “We are hanging on by a razor's edge financially already. You bring charter schools into Boone County, which is what this bill specifically does, and it hurts us.”

Smith later admonished Senate Democrats for not killing the bill when it was up for debate in the Senate.

“We're not OK with it. It should have been filibustered. It shouldn't have made it this far, it should have been stopped,” Smith said.

The legislation also contains measures that have more support from both parties. They include recalculating the state’s school funding formula to factor in enrollment as opposed to just attendance.

Another provision raises the minimum salary for teachers. Through the legislation, that wage would increase from $25,000 to $40,000 annually.

“I think the amount of money that's going into public schools is a vast amount of money. I think it's going to help our public schools and our districts,” Rep. Jamie Burger, R-Benton, said.

While Democrats said they are in support of raising the minimum wage for teachers and have filed bills and amendments that do just that, they expressed concern there is no funding mechanism tied to the bill that would guarantee that those raises would happen.

“We say we're taking care of our teachers with an increase in minimum pay. But there is nothing that tethers that to anything else in the bill,” Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Manchester, said.

Quade said after the vote that she still had concerns that the funding isn’t guaranteed.

“We know that our revenue numbers are going to be vastly different as early as next year. And so yeah, when we're looking at those provisions within the bill that we deeply like, there are concerns,” Quade said.

House Floor Leader Jon Patterson, R-Lee’s Summit, said he sees the funding associated with this bill as a priority.

“Making sure our kids have what they need to get what they need to go out there and learn and compete with kids from all around the world, that is our No. 1 priority,” Patterson said.

Sarah Kellogg is a Missouri Statehouse and Politics Reporter for St. Louis Public Radio and other public radio stations across the state.