Expansion of tax-credit scholarships faces criticism of Missouri homeschoolers

Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent photo:
Missouri State Representatives Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, left, and Brad Hudson, R-Cape Fair, present bills to the House Special Committee on Education Reform Monday afternoon, Feb. 12, 2024.
Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent photo: Missouri State Representatives Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, left, and Brad Hudson, R-Cape Fair, present bills to the House Special Committee on Education Reform Monday afternoon, Feb. 12, 2024.


Organizations representing homeschool families raised concerns about state legislation debated Monday seeking to expand a tax credit program that helps pay for Missouri students to attend private and religious schools.

A dozen bills proposing changes to the tax-credit program, dubbed MOScholars, have been filed this legislative session in both the House and Senate. On Monday, a House committee debated four of them, each seeking to make the program more accessible to students across the state.

The program was created in 2021 and is currently only available to students identified as low-income qualifying for special education in charter counties or cities with at least 30,000 residents.

Three bills heard Monday would expand which areas of the state could participate. Two of those also increased the size of the program, and another lifted restrictions on how long a participant needed to have been attending public schools prior to receiving a scholarship.

Sheryl Schmidt, a lobbyist for the homeschool organization Families for Home Education, said she watched other states tie oversight of homeschool families to educational-scholarship-account expansion.

She was opposed to all four bills debated on Monday, calling them "dangerous for Missouri homeschool freedoms."

Two days prior to the hearing, Families for Home Education sent out a flier to families, asking them to testify in opposition of bills expanding MOScholars.

"What school choice really means is the government is paying for not only public and charter schools, but also for private and home schools," it says. "Where there is 'free' money there is also a 'poison pill' of accountability (restrictions and regulations)."

Homeschooling families complained about potential for government oversight in a Senate committee hearing on a bill that would allow home-educated athletes to participate in public-school teams and clubs but define two categories of homeschooled.

Schmidt has reiterated a desire for privacy in her public testimony.

Three others representing homeschooling families took a similar stance Monday.

Danielle Dent-Breen, president of Kansas City Homeschool Connection, said homeschool families with MOScholars funding must submit to more oversight than self-funded peers, including standardized testing.

She said there are just 14 homeschool families using MOScholars, according to information she received from the State Treasurer's Office. The Independent received a count of 13 homeschooled students, as of Nov. 3.

The legislation

A bill by state Rep. Mark Matthiesen, a Republican from O'Fallon, would allow students who are currently enrolled in a private school to receive a MOScholars scholarship. The program currently requires recipients to have attended public school "for at least one semester in the past 12 months" or be of kindergarten age.

"My extremely simple bill simply eliminates the section that is an obstacle for students who might otherwise qualify for this," he told the committee.

State Rep. Brad Hudson, a Republican from Cape Fair, wants to expand the program statewide rather than limiting scholarships to students living in the state's most populated areas.

"What my bill does is it takes the current statute and it removes the geographic limitations that were approved in 2021 so that the program is open up to families and students statewide," he said, briefly describing his two-paged bill to the committee.

Hudson's and Matthiesen's bills are expected to have no fiscal impact, since they do no not expand the amount of money that the program could accept.

Bills sponsored by Republican Reps. Phil Christofanelli of St. Peters and Doug Richey of Excelsior Springs propose a larger expansion of K-12 tax-credit scholarships at an estimated cost of $9.2 million.

Their legislation would allow for the program to amass $75 million in tax credits instead of the current $50 million cap and approve the appointment of an additional educational assistance organization once organizations can meet $25 million in tax credits annually.

Christofanelli and Richey also call for the end of geographic restrictions.

"I'm not a fan of telling someone that lives right across the county line that you don't get to benefit from this when they have the very same interest that parents who live in the neighboring county do," Richey said.

Christofanelli sponsored the bill that created the current program. He told the committee that negotiations led to the geographic restraints, among other things.

"That has been one of the most frustrating parts of the bill," Christofanelli said. "There's really no good reason to have those geographic restrictions in place."

His legislation also calls for higher scholarship amounts for students who speak English as a second language, qualify for free or reduced lunch or have an individualized education plan. The increased amount follows multipliers used to give public schools more money for educating these student groups.

It would also remove background checks for homeschool families participating in the program.

"This legislation ultimately is where we want to go. It is where many other states have gone in providing a universal school choice option for every student that wants to avail themselves of one," Christofanelli said. "It sets the balance between where I'd like to be and what I think we could practically accomplish in this legislative session."

Advocates for public education believe the program takes away funding for public schools.

"Further expansion of vouchers in Missouri is detrimental to the public school system," Nancy Copenhaver, legislative director for the League of Women Voters of Missouri, told the committee. "Which is severely underfunded, as shown by the ranking near the bottom of the country in beginning teacher salaries and average teacher salaries."

According to the Missouri National Education Association, a teachers' union, the state ranks 50th in average starting teacher pay and 47th in average teacher pay.

The committee did not take action on the bills Monday.

A tax-credit-scholarship expansion bill sponsored by state Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Manchester Republican, is currently being held for discussion in the Senate. The bill seeks to raise the income cap to be eligible for MOScholars, among provisions similar to Christofanelli's and Richey's bills.

A Senate committee was set to debate a pair of bills identical to Koenig's Tuesday.

One bill, sponsored by Parkville Republican Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, mirrors the base bill. Legislation sponsored by Sen. Curtis Trent, a Springfield Republican, also includes provisions authorizing charter schools in three counties to match an approved committee substitute for Koenig's bill. Luetkemeyer and Trent filed their bills last Wednesday.

Koenig said his bill was not ready for floor discussion when it came up on the Senate's calendar last Wednesday.

The Missouri Independent, www.missouriindependent.com, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.