Massive Missouri education reform bill set to emerge soon after closed-door talks

(The Center Square) – With Missouri lawmakers returning from spring break this week to resume their 2021 legislative session, among priorities to be resolved in Jefferson City before May 14’s scheduled adjournment is the state’s budget, Medicaid expansion and competing online tax-collection bills.

Also on tap during the session’s second half are proposed bills to expand sports gaming, boost the state’s motor fuels tax for the first time in a quarter century and a massive education reform omnibus package being pushed by conservatives that would allow charter school expansion and create a school choice tax credit scholarship.

Senate Bill 55, filed by Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, would permit charter schools, currently only allowed to operate in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas, to expand to any school district within a charter county or in any municipality with a population greater than 30,000.

SB 55 would create the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program (MESAP) that would allow parents to use state tax-credit vouchers up to about $6,000 to pay a child’s tuition at a private school.

SB 55 moved quickly through several committee hearings but has stalled since it was debated in late February on the Senate floor. Its House companion, House Bill 349, filed by Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Charles, has not been heard before any lower chamber committee.

The original SB 55 sponsored by O’Laughlin, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, only addressed requiring public school districts to allow homeschooled students to participate in after-school sports and activities.

During February committee reviews, however, SB 55 morphed into a massive measure that incorporates the two most potentially controversial education-related bills of the session.

Now included as provisions within the bill are SB 23, filed by Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, which would create MESAP, and SB 25, sponsored by Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon, which would allow charter schools to operate in any city or county with a population greater than 30,000.

In addition, the bill would redirect state funds away from public schools and to the Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program (MOCAP) if students are attending virtual classes, limit State Board of Education members to one eight-year term and establish a recall procedure for local school board members if 25 percent of registered voters sign a petition.

Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, told reporters last week that SB 55 remains a work-in-progress but should be presented on the Senate floor soon.

“We’ve been working behind the scenes with folks that just have some different opinions about how we should move forward,” he said. “There are numerous mechanisms for us to get some education reform done. SB 55 very well could be the mechanism, and I fully expect to bring that up and get that passed over to the House.”

SB 55 is opposed by many groups, including the Missouri School Boards Association (MSBA), Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) and Network for Public Education Action, which said the measure now includes provisions never aired in public hearings.

“The legislation as drafted fails to address long-standing concerns from education professionals regarding taxpayer funding of private education, and the statewide expansion of a broken charter school model,” MSTA said.

School choice advocates, including the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri (CEAM), are in favor of SB 55, including its Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, charter school expansion and MOCAP provisions.

“The education system’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has only made more stark the failure of a one-size-fits-all approach to student learning,” CEAM Executive Director Laura Slay said. “We have a unique opportunity now to learn from those mistakes and enact meaningful education reform that works for all children and their families.”

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