Missouri Senate panel debates expanding tax credit scholarships for private school tuition

Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Mancheste (Photo by Annelise Hanshaw - Missouri Independent)
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(Missouri Independent) – Income and geographic restrictions would be loosened for a tax-credit program that provides scholarships to help pay for private school tuition under a bill debated Wednesday by the Senate’s education committee.

Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Manchester Republican and the committee’s chairman, is sponsoring the legislation seeking to expand MoScholars. Koenig is running this year to become State Treasurer, the office that oversees the MoScholars program.

“This is a win for everybody in the situation for kids, and it provides parents options,” Koenig told the committee.

The bill, which is estimated could cost the state $9.2 million, would allow students throughout Missouri to enroll in the program and raise the maximum family income from 200% of the amount needed to qualify for free or reduced lunch to 400%. 

In 2024, the maximum family salary for a family of four that would be eligible under Koenig’s bill is $220,000.

Sen. Tracy McCreery, a Democrat from St. Louis, questioned why the legislation allowed more affluent families to access money that otherwise would go toward the state’s general fund, asking Koenig why he chose this amount.

Koenig said he would prefer to remove the income cap completely.

“When someone is going to a traditional public school, we don’t means-test them,” he said. “All kids should have this option. Obviously, that’s not what I filed because I thought that might be difficult to pass.”

Currently, the students eligible have difficulty obtaining the tax-credit scholarships because funding lags behind the school year and student demand. Some of the educational assistance organizations, that grant the scholarships, are back-funding renewal scholarships.

Audrey Baker, a parent from Kansas City who testified on Wednesday, said the program is important for students like her daughter, a young student with health issues. Her daughter received interventions in her public school during kindergarten but found more stability in her private school, Baker said.

She applied for a scholarship through the Herzog Tomorrow Foundation, one of the MOScholars providers, and didn’t receive the funds because the foundation was short on money, she said. She drained an educational savings account to pay for her daughter’s tuition.

 State Treasurer Vivek Malek testifies in support of a bill by Sen. Andrew Koenig that would expand the MOScholars program. Both are campaigning for the 2024 State Treasurer’s election (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent). 

McCreery asked Koenig why he would expand the program given its current challenges. She also requested the program prioritize students in unaccredited and provisionally accredited schools.

“We’ve got more demand for these vouchers than money,” she said. “So why wouldn’t we be focusing on where the need is.”

Koenig said the program was new, and he hoped more money would come into MOScholars.

“If your concern is that some kids might not have access to this who really need it, we can always make it part of the foundation formula and do direct funding,” he said.

His legislation does not include a state appropriation, but it would expand the cap on the amount of tax credits the program can receive. It also would increase the scholarship amount for students with poor English language skills, who qualify for free or reduced lunch or have an individualized education plan.

State Treasurer Vivek Malek testified in favor of the bill, focusing on the geographic expansion, saying that he believes students should have the opportunity to enroll  “​​whether they live in Ladue or Laddonia, or St. Louis City or Sikeston.”

He did not comment on the provision that would allow families making 400% of the amount to qualify for free or reduced lunch to be eligible.

 Sen. Doug Beck questions State Treasurer Vivek Malek during a Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee hearing Wednesday afternoon (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent). 

Sen. Doug Beck, an Affton Democrat, asked Malek and MOScholars program administrator David Masterson whether student achievement was being recorded. Malek said that data is collected after the third year of the program, or school year 2024-25.

Beck questioned expanding the program before this data is available.

“We raised $9 million last year. This year, we raised $17 million,” Malek said. “And as the program is expanding, I think it is more wise to expand it now than to wait.”

Opposition to the bill included education groups like the Missouri Council for School Administrators and the Missouri National Education Association, a teacher’s union.

A new system

Koenig presented a second bill to the committee Wednesday that would remove the need for the MOScholars program, allowing educational expenses to be reimbursed through a tax credit if a student attends a school outside of their home district.

The bill’s fiscal note estimates that it would cost around $900 million to $1.5 billion. Koenig said Wednesday that he believes excluding homeschooled students could shave off $700 million.

Families would be able to receive up to the amount of the state adequacy target for each student, which is the amount the state calculates in state aid per pupil.

Sen. Elaine Gannon, a Republican from De Soto, asked Koenig where the money would come from.

Koenig said parents would be reimbursed for the expenses when they do their taxes. He said some of the money comes from Proposition C, a sales tax approved by voters in 1982 for schools and highways.

“You want to take funding that’s been designated for the public school system since 1982?” Gannon asked.

She accused the bill of “draining the public school money away.”

Koenig said he doesn’t think Proposition C money belongs solely to the public school system.

“I don’t view that money as owned by the institutions,” he said. “It is there to educate the children of the state of Missouri, and that’s the purpose behind it.”

Gannon pushed back, saying it belongs to the schools.

“This money was designated in 1982 for public schools, and now you’re wanting to take that money and spend it where it should not be spent,” she said, banging her hand against the desk.

Sen. Greg Razer, a Kansas City Democrat, said he wanted more information from homeschool families if they were to receive public dollars.

“I’ve always been bothered that we don’t have oversight over homeschools to make sure that the kids are getting taught,” he said. “I suspect most are. I suspect some are not.”

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Annelise Hanshaw


Annelise Hanshaw covers education — a beat she has held on both the East and West Coast prior to joining the Missouri Independent staff. A born-and-raised Missourian, she is proud to be back in her home state.