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Bill for limited Missouri school voucher program passes

Program would be limited to students with disabilities on individual education plans and children from low-income families.

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Missouri lawmakers passed on Thursday a bill to allow a tax credit program to help pay for children to attend private schools.

The measure, approved 20-13 by the GOP-led Senate, would establish a limited voucher system if signed by Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican.

Under the bill, private donors would give money to nonprofits that in turn would dole out the scholarships. The money could be used for private school tuition, transportation to school, extra tutoring and other education-related expenses.

Donors to the program would get state tax credits equal to the amount they give, an indirect way to divert state tax dollars to private education.

Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, said the proposal would give parents the flexibility to switch schools if theirs isn’t the best fit, citing the need to move a child who is being bullied as an example.

“The reality is, every child is different,” Koenig said. “And we don’t know what that child needs, but the parents do.”

Republicans applauded and cheered when the bill’s passage was announced in the House.

Speaker Rob Vescovo has championed so-called school choice bills as a top priority since he took over as the top House lawmaker in January. In a statement, he called the bill “transformative.”

Critics of school voucher programs have said they funnel money away from public schools by drawing students out of those districts, leading to a drop in attendance and consequently a drop in funding.

The bill “crosses an important line” by allowing taxpayer dollars to go to private schools and homeschool, Missouri School Boards’ Association Executive Director Melissa Randol said in a statement.

“I would encourage any communities upset with this legislation to take a hard look at the Republicans they send to Jefferson City,” Senate Democratic Minority Leader John Rizzo said in a statement.

Only K-12 students in the state’s largest cities — those with at least 30,000 residents — would be able to get the scholarships. That includes St. Louis, Kansas City and many of their suburbs. It also covers Springfield and Columbia.

The program also would be limited to students with disabilities on individual education plans and children from low-income families.

Tax credits for the vouchers would be capped at $50 million per year and could ramp up with inflation to as much as $75 million per year.

Lawmakers further restricted the program to kick in only if they budget at least 40% of the minimum public school transportation funding called for by law. If funding for school busing drops below that threshold, the voucher program would be canceled for that year.

Missouri lawmakers are on track to provide that much funding this year.

Missouri negotiators delayed the potential financial hit to districts by adding a provision to the bill that will continue to count voucher students in their home districts for funding purposes for five years after the program begins, even if those students switch schools.

The measure passed the Senate with little debate Thursday. But it faced pushback during House debate earlier this year and passed that chamber 82-71, with a number of Republicans joining Democrats to vote against it.

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