FILE - Missouri State Capitol Building in Jefferson City

Missouri State Capitol Building in Jefferson City

(The Center Square) — A proposed bill that would allow charter school expansion and create a school choice tax credit scholarship passed its first hearing Thursday, but not before the measure morphed into an even larger omnibus package making it the 2021 session’s likely flagship education legislation.

Senate Bill 55, filed by Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, was approved in a 5-4 vote Thursday by the Senate Education Committee. Its next stop is the Senate floor for debate.

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

Over the last week, however, SB 55 has grown into a massive measure that includes 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 of the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program (MESAP) by allow parents to use state tax-credit vouchers to pay a child’s tuition at a private school, 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.

During Thursday’s hearing, SB 55 was further expanded to include bills seeking to 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.

School choice advocates, including the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri (CEAM), applauded the committee’s passage of charter school expansion and tax-credit scholarships within SB 55.

“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 in the statement. “We have a unique opportunity now to learn from those mistakes and enact meaningful education reform that works for all children and their families, not just those with the most resources.”

Koenig’s SB 23, now a SB 55 provision, would encourage taxpayers to donate to “educational assistance organizations.” In return, they’d receive a tax credit of up to 85 percent of their donation.

The scholarship accounts “really empower parents to be able to customize their child’s education,” Koenig said before the Senate Education Committee earlier this week. “While public schools work well for many children, some are failing and others might not be a good fit, he argued. “All schools can’t be all things to every child.” 

Eigel’s SB 25, also now a SB 55 provision, proposes MESAP contributors receive a 100-percent tax credit and to allow charter schools operate in the state’s four charter counties — St. Louis, St. Charles, Jefferson, Jackson — and in any municipality with 30,000 or more residents.

Existing law only allows charter schools in the Kansas City and St. Louis school districts.

According to state analysts, the proposal could allow charter schools in an additional 56 school districts and divert more than $100 million from public schools.

Which is why the committee’s three Democrats and one Republican, Sen. Elaine Gannon, of De Soto, voted against SB 55 Thursday and why the Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) says it will lobby aggressively against many of the provisions in the bill.

“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 in a statement.