After years of failed attempts, an ESA bill is finally headed to the Governor’s desk

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – After years of failed attempts to get through the legislature, an Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) bill has finally been passed through both chambers and is headed to the Governor’s desk. 

HB 349, sponsored by Rep. Phil Christofanelli, will establish the “Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program” and allow public school students to draw scholarship funds in order to attend the school of their choice. 

It will also allow donors to receive a tax credit of up to 50 percent of their contributions to educational assistance programs. Those contributions will be placed into ESAs and used towards the costs of tuition, textbooks and tutoring services, among other costs. The program will apply to charter counties and areas with a population of 30,000 or more. 

The Senate passed the bill yesterday in a 20-13 vote after only a few minutes of debate. Republican Sens. Lincoln Hough, Karla Eslinger and Sandy Crawford joined Democrats in votes of opposition.

“There will be thousands of families that have this option now and I’m a big believer that when you empower parents, education outcomes improve,” Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, chairwoman of the Senate committee on education, told The Heartlander. 

“We have kids stuck in one-size-fits-all education systems and it doesn’t work for everyone,” she continued. “This allows families to have the freedom to choose what education options best fit their needs.” 

This bill is considered by many to be the first major education reform in more than a decade and, according to O’Laughlin, there’s one main reason for that.

“The education establishment has been successful with the strategy of not negotiating on bills for years,” she said. “I agree with Sen. [Caleb] Rowden that their rigidity delayed passage of the bill, but not the significance of the policy. This is a huge national win for the school choice movement.” 

The bill was passed by the House earlier this session by a narrow vote of 82-71. Speaker Rob Vescovo was a major vocal advocate through that process and delivered a compelling speech in the lower chamber before the vote was taken in February.

“28 years ago I dropped out of school and nothing has changed,” Vescovo exclaimed. “When can we change something? When can we not be scared of those guys up there and do what we think is right?” 

“You want to talk about criminal justice reform? It’s education!” he continued. “There’s nothing more positive in criminal justice reform than education.” 

Both Missouri citizens and elected officials have noted their frustration with school closings during the COVID-19 pandemic. O’Laughlin said the refusal of schools to reopen were “one of the major catalysts,” behind the passage of HB 349.

The bill is expected to be signed by Gov. Mike Parson in the near future as the 2021 legislative session dwindles down to its last week.

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