Government & Politics

Missouri governor’s scholarship program mired in GOP dispute over school choice

Missouri Gov. Parson outlines priorities in State of the State address

Missouri Governor Mike Parson outlined his priorities in his State of the State address Wednesday afternoon in Jefferson City.
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Missouri Governor Mike Parson outlined his priorities in his State of the State address Wednesday afternoon in Jefferson City.

It is a cornerstone of Gov. Mike Parson’s proposed workforce development agenda: a $22 million scholarship program for adults hoping to get an undergraduate degree later in life for high-demand jobs.

But a member of the newly-formed Conservative Caucus, a group of far-right state senators, promised to sink the Fast Track bill Tuesday if one of his priorities—school vouchers for K-12 students—was not added to the bill.

State Sen. Andrew Koenig’s proposal would create Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), allowing families to claim a tax credit to offset money spent on a school of their choice, whether public, private or online.

“The reality is House Bill 225 will not pass without ESAs on it,” Koenig, R-Manchester, declared.

The threat of a filibuster is the latest example of the tensions roiling Republicans who control the Missouri Senate. The six Conservative Caucus members have challenged fellow Republicans on other elements of Parson’s workforce agenda, including a fund to help companies that choose to expand in Missouri. Even after a rare instance of compromise on Parson’s proposal to sell bonds for bridge repair, one Republican state senator unleashed his frustrations at the Conservative Caucus, calling them the “Chaos Caucus.”

The debate over school choice—school vouchers and expansion of charter schools outside of Kansas City and St. Louis —has historically split the Missouri Senate Republicans, some of whom believe that both undermine traditional public schools.

Koenig saw the stalling on Fast Track as a kind of tit-for-tat, especially after efforts to compromise on the voucher bill met resistance. Fast Track is sponsored by state Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, who has filibustered school choice efforts in the past.

“I wanted to reciprocate the very thing he did to me,” Koenig said on the floor.

Some Caucus members took issue with the Fast Track scholarship program, which passed the Missouri House and, if approved by the Missouri Senate, would have been sent to Parson for approval. But they said they would reluctantly allow it to go to a vote of the full Senate if they received their concession.

“I cannot see a path for the so-called ‘Fast Track blank check to the Department of Higher (Education)‘ bill to get forward to make it through this process without options for children and their parents that are not being well-served by public schools,” state Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, said.

Parson lobbied Conservative Caucus members personally last week and implored them to find a path to get Fast Track to a vote. A request for comment from the Governor’s Office about the meeting was not returned.

“We have to see the governor help us more with charter school expansion and ESAs,” said state Sen. Bill Eigel, a member of the caucus, when asked whether Parson’s appeal didn’t lessen caucus opposition..

Some senators, who were open to ESAs and charter school expansion, said they would vote Koenig’s amendment down due to the lack of Koenig’s “collegiality.”

After about fours hours of debate, the Fast Track bill was tabled. The legislative session ends May 17.