MO lawmakers pass massive education bill targeting 4-day weeks, boosting private schools

Missouri lawmakers on Thursday approved a sweeping education bill that requires voters to decide whether large school districts can shift to four-day school weeks, raises teacher pay and expands a scholarship program for students to attend private or charter schools.

The bill, which passed the Missouri House on a vote of 82 to 69, now heads to Republican Gov. Mike Parson’s desk. It passed the Senate on a vote of 19 to 10 last month.

The legislation has faced criticism from the Independence School District, which last year became the largest school system in the state to try a four-day week in an attempt to attract teachers.

It would require school districts in Jackson, Clay, St. Louis, Jefferson and St. Charles counties, or districts that serve more than 30,000 residents, to receive approval from a majority of voters in the district by 2026 in order to keep a four-day week or to begin offering it.

School board members under current state law can decide whether a district shifts to a four-day week. The legislation would not affect smaller districts in more rural parts of the state.

“We’re taking care of parents,” said Rep. Phil Christofanelli, a St. Peters Republican who handled the bill in the House. “A lot of parents got frustrated seeing their schools go to four days in big suburban communities when you need to get your kids to work.”

The provision regarding four-day weeks was mentioned only briefly during the House debate on Thursday. It was included in a more than one-hundred-page education bill that also allows charter schools to operate in Boone County and raises the starting salary for teachers to $40,000.

The core of the Republican-led bill, filed by Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Manchester Republican, would expand the tax-credit-funded scholarship program for private or charter schools.

Christofanelli on Thursday touted the massive bill as historic, telling his colleagues that it would be “the most important vote you ever take.”

Thursday’s passage of the expansion was widely viewed as a win for school choice advocates, who have for years pushed for greater access to non-traditional K-12 education such as private and religious schools.

“This bill is something that advances education and gives the opportunity for every student in the state,” said Rep. Ben Baker, a Neosho Republican.

But many House Democrats on Wednesday excoriated the high cost of the legislation, arguing that it could put the state budget in jeopardy. Several also argued that while the bill promised to help public schools, many of its provisions would require additional allocations from the General Assembly that aren’t guaranteed.

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a Springfield Democrat running for governor, said in a statement on Wednesday that the bill provided “nothing but empty promises for public education.”

“The legislature had a chance to strengthen all Missouri schools but instead decided to once again shortchange public education,” she said.

Rep. Deb Lavender, a Manchester Democrat, took issue with Republicans who claim to be fiscally conservative while passing a bill with an estimated cost to the state that nears $500 million.

Lavender argued that the bill does not guarantee teacher pay raises or transportation costs because they would require additional funding from the General Assembly.

“The legislature just passed a policy that ultimately helps the richest among us and continues to throw public education under the bus,” she said.

The bill expands the Missouri Empowerment Scholarships, or MOScholars, program. The tax-credit funded program provides qualified K-12 students and their families with funding to attend a private or charter school.

If signed by Parson, the new law would raise the funding cap — or the total amount of tax-credit eligible donations MOScholars can accept — from $25 million to $75 million. Previously, the funding cap had been allowed to grow with inflation, reaching a little over $27.5 million this year.

The House passed the bill on Thursday after the Senate spent hours late Wednesday night working on a compromise that eased concerns about whether homeschool families were allowed to own firearms. Those concerns have popped up on social media over the past few weeks but were largely dispelled by Republican lawmakers.

Still, the House passed a companion bill from the Senate on Thursday that ensures families who homeschool their kids can own guns.

While Christofanelli and other Republican colleagues touted the bill as a win for education, Rep. Paula Brown, a Hazelwood Democrat, called the legislation a “travesty.”

“Are we paying attention?” Brown said on the House floor. “The economy is not going to support this.”