JEFFERSON CITY - The Senate General Laws Committee passed a bill to allow students in failing school districts to use state tax credits to attend private or parochial schools.
Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County, sponsored the bill, which addresses students attending the unaccredited St. Louis and Kansas City School Districts. Suburban St. Louis school district Riverview Gardens has also lost its accreditation.
"This would provide students an automatic accredited education," Cunningham said.
Catholic school leaders had previously urged lawmakers to allow students in failing districts to attend their schools.
According to Cunningham, the tax credit would allow students living in a failing school district to attend private schools without violating the so-called "Blaine Amendment" in the Missouri Constitution, which prohibits state funds to religious institutions.
The committee passed the measure with a 7-1 vote. The only "no" vote was Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, who said the tax credit would not reach the targeted population of students.
Objections were also raised over the bill's cost. Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, voted in favor of the measure but said it could cost the state money.
"I thought we were not approving new ones [tax credits] until we get reforms on the old ones," Purgason said.
The reluctance on new tax credits stems from last year's battle to reform the existing tax breaks. Two of the state's largest tax credits are the low-income housing and historic preservation programs, which combined cost the state $200 million a year.
In both last year's regular and special session, the House and Senate failed to find a compromise to rein in those and other programs leading to the demise of other proposed tax credits, such as the creation of a "China hub" at Lambert Airport.
The tax credit in Cunningham's bill would be capped at $40 million annually.
Cunningham's bill also includes provisions that could allow the suburban Kansas City school districts to "annex" the schools in the currently unaccredited Kansas City school district, absorbing the student population.
Cunningham said this allows student to obtain an accredited education without having to move or go to school outside their neighborhood. She credited the cooperation of the suburban Kansas City superintendents for this solution and added the situation in St. Louis was not the same.
The bill will now go to the Senate floor.
The General Laws Committee also heard testimony Tuesday about altering the "Blaine Amendment," opening the door for a more comprehensive school voucher program.
Sen. Scott Rupp, R-St. Charles, sponsored the new amendment which would repeal the ban on state funding to religious organizations.
The committee took no action on Rupp's proposed amendment.