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Voucher Bill has hearing in Senate committee

The Senate Ways and Means Committee conducted a hearing on SB160 (Koenig) that would establish the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program. If this bill sounds familiar, it is substantially similar to legislation in the past that has been filed to create a voucher program in the State of Missouri. This $50 million program would utilize public funds to pay for private education.

This bill would establish “education assistance organizations” and allow them to administer the program on behalf of the state. A taxpayer may make a contribution to an education assistance organization and receive a tax credit for up to 100 percent of the amount of the contribution, but may not exceed 50 percent of the taxpayer’s state tax liability in the year the tax credit is claimed. The program would be capped at $50 million but would be increased based on inflation. There are limits on the amount of tax dollars that could be spent on marketing and administrative expenses, but each organization could spend up to 10 percent of the tax dollars they receive outside of the scholarship program.

The Department of Revenue would be responsible for creating a procedure to allocate the tax credits to the education assistance organizations on a first-come, first-served basis. The Department of Revenue would also be responsible to reallocate tax credits among the education assistance organizations if necessary. The department must also issue a report on the state of the program five years after it goes into effect. The report must include information regarding the finances of the educational assistance organizations and education outcomes of qualified students. This one-time report is the only required accountability on a $50 million program that would operate outside the legislative appropriations process.

In order to be eligible to receive funds in an empowerment scholarship account, the student must be a Missouri resident and reside in a county with a charter form of government or a municipality with a population greater than 30,000. This would include residents in Jackson, Jefferson, St. Charles and St. Louis counties. In addition to the cities in those charter counties, it would also include the cities of Cape Girardeau, Joplin, St. Joseph, Columbia and Springfield.

The parents of qualified students may only use the money for certain expenses related to the student’s education. The student may enroll in a charter school, a home school, a private school or a public school. Students may also enroll in virtual education. Students may not enroll in a school that is operated by their district of residence or a charter school. The student’s parents shall only use the money in the account for certain expenses related to the qualified student’s education, this includes tuition or fees, textbooks, educational therapies, tutoring services, and test fees. Fees associated with the actual account may also be paid for with the voucher, including fees for management of the empowerment scholarship and insurance or surety bond payments. Tuition at a private school outside of Missouri and purchase of consumable educational supplies including paper, pens, pencils and markers are prohibited.

As has been the case in past versions of ESAs, MSTA’s greatest concerns are still not addressed, including the lack of real accountability for the schools that students could enroll in while receiving state tax incentives.

MSTA lobbyists testified against the bill. Public schools are held to high accountability standards, and schools that accept these scholarships should have accountability measures to ensure that students are receiving a quality education. This legislation would also create another runaway tax credit program. While the Missouri economy continues to grow, there is greater concern that the state’s budget is beginning to show the structural problems that even in a good economy, revenue is not able to keep pace with current state obligations.

Charter School Expansion Bill to be heard this week

Legislation to expand charter schools in Missouri has again been filed this session. A hearing has been scheduled in the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee on HB581 (Roeber) that could expand the charter school model to any district in the state.

Charter schools are allowed to operate in the St. Louis and Kansas City public school districts, unaccredited school districts, school districts that are provisionally accredited for three consecutive years or in any school district where the local school board is the charter sponsor. Currently charter schools only operate within the boundaries of the St. Louis and Kansas City public school districts. This legislation would expand the charter school model to any county with a charter form of government, a city with a population greater than 30,000, or in any school district when certain conditions are met. Anyone may submit a proposed charter with a plan to a local school board with “evidence of community support” for the operation of a charter school for the district. The local district may agree to sponsor the school, but if rejected, the applicant may appeal to the Missouri Charter Public School Commission, a commission established in state law with the sole purpose of sponsoring charter schools. The Missouri Charter Public School Commission must approve the charter and act as the sponsor if “it finds it more likely than not there is community support for the charter school.” Further definition of “more likely than not” is not available in the legislation.

The legislation further uses selective data from the districts in which a charter school operates to make a determination regarding the success of the school and a factor as to whether or not a charter school should receive a renewal to continue to operate. HB581 also allows for open enrollment of students into charter schools across the state.

 MSTA Adopted Resolutions are clear regarding charter schools. MSTA supports the establishment of public charter schools, provided the charters are granted by the local school board within an existing accredited Missouri public school district. MSTA further supports requiring all members of a public charter school board to be residents of the district in which the charter school serves. Currently, there are no residency requirements for charter school board members. They are not even required to be residents of the state of Missouri.

MSTA remains opposed to this legislation, charter school expansion without local community input and oversight by locally elected school boards lacks accountability to Missouri citizens.

Peter Herschend appointment confirmed by Missouri Senate

Peter Herschend, co-founder of Herschend Family Entertainment, had previously served on the State Board of Education for 26 years. He had been removed from the State Board by former Gov. Eric Greitens. His replacements were embroiled in controversy and legal cases, as well as backlash in the Missouri Senate that prevented their appointments from being confirmed. Upon Greitens’ resignation from office, Gov. Mike Parson appointed Herschend to return to the board to provide stability to a board that was unable to meet and operate for six months under the previous administration.

Parson first appointed Herschend last summer before his selection was met with opposition in the Senate, resulting in the governor withdrawing him and reappointing him again after the annual veto session. His term on the State Board of Education will expire on July 1, 2023.

Educator expense tax deduction bills presented in committee

Two bills were heard in the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee that would allow a tax deduction for qualified expenses for educators. HB364 (Kelley) and HB299 (Hansen) would allow Missouri teachers to deduct up to $500 of unreimbursed expenses outlined in the bills. These expenses would include costs incurred as a result of participation in professional development courses as well as books, supplies, computer equipment and other supplementary materials used by the teacher in the classroom. MSTA testified in favor of the legislation.

House Pensions Committee hears PSRS bill

The House Pensions Committee heard HB77 (R. Black) that would allow all PSRS retirees who return to work for community colleges to be covered under the 550 hours and 50 percent of salary statutory restrictions.

Under current law, any person retired from PSRS may be employed by an employer included in the retirement system in a position that does not normally require a Missouri teacher certification. Such a person may earn up to 60 percent of the statutory minimum teacher salary ($15,000) without a discontinuance of the person’s retirement allowance.

If any such person is employed in excess of the limitations, they shall not be eligible to receive their retirement allowance for any month during which they are employed.

MSTA supports this bill. Last year changes were made to laws governing PSRS members who return to work in a position that does not require a teaching certificate to work under a limit on the amount of money made ($15,000) instead of number of hours worked. This bill corrects the unintended consequences that affect community college employees.

Agriculture Policy Committee considers changes to school start date

HB161 (Knight) and HB401 (Basye) were heard before the House Agriculture Policy Committee.  These bills would prohibit school districts from setting start dates more than 10 calendar days before Labor Day. If approved this session, the legislation would take effect for the 2020-21 school year.

Current state law requires school districts to start 10 days before Labor Day, but districts are allowed to start earlier if a public hearing is conducted and the local school board takes a vote. Missouri is one of 16 states that place restrictions on school start dates.

Many members of the committee stressed the negative effect that schools starting early in August has on the tourism business in Missouri and well as limiting ability of students to exhibit livestock at the Missouri State Fair.

MSTA opposed these bills. Local school boards, with input from staff and the community, are best to decide when it is appropriate to begin a school year.

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