After falling short in previous legislative attempts to enact private tuition tax credits in Missouri, reformers are cautiously optimistic about the prospects of a proposal for a program targeted to special-needs students.
Under Senate Bill 993, financial contributions made to organizations that provide private scholarships to students with defined physical or mental impairments would reduce an individual’s state tax liability by 80 percent on contributions up to $1 million.
To be eligible under the proposal, scholarship organizations would have to demonstrate financial accountability and guarantee students can carry the scholarship between different programs. Qualifying schools would have to meet basic safety and health standards, could not discriminate on the basis of race or religion, and would have to provide regular reports to parents on student progress.
Dave Roland, policy analyst for the Show-Me Institute, a think tank in St. Louis, said the state’s last four or five legislative sessions saw unsuccessful tuition tax credit proposals targeted at poor students in large, urban districts. He believes SB 993 has a better chance to pass but says school choice champion Gov. Matt Blunt’s (R) late January announcement not to seek reelection and other factors might complicate the process.
“It’s hard to tell what will happen,” Roland said. “I’d like to think there’s enough momentum to push it through, but past experience says caution is advised.”
State Sen. Jason Crowell (R-Cape Girardeau), who is sponsoring SB 993, expressed more confidence.
“I believe that focusing on special-needs children is an important duty of legislators,” Crowell said. “I believe [the bill] will be supported by a majority of legislators.”
On February 13, more than 150 people, including many parents of special-needs children, showed up to testify before a Missouri Senate committee in favor of SB 993.
“I hope that because of hearings like this, more people will begin to take notice of what’s happening to the children falling through the cracks of the school system,” said Shari Kaminsky, a mother of two autistic children from Kirkwood who testified before the committee.
Kaminsky’s older son has done well in the special public school district, a government entity organized to deliver educational services to special-needs students. But she removed her younger son when she observed the system was not serving his needs. Since enrolling him last autumn at the private program Giant Steps, she has witnessed marked progress in his verbal and social skills.
But the Kirkwood mother said Giant Steps faces declining enrollment as special school districts have stopped establishing new contracts with private providers.
“Unless there is some degree of choice here, it means there will be no Giant Steps,” Kaminsky said. “I should be able to convince the school system that my son should be able to be here, but they’re not going to do it on their own.”
Crowell characterized much of the testimony as “very heartbreaking and very emotional,” citing stories of relocations and broken marriages that resulted from parents’ sacrifices made to educate their special-needs children.
On February 20, the committee approved SB 993 and sent it to the full Senate for consideration.
Crowell says his bill’s primary purpose is to equalize opportunities for families, regardless of their income.
“The main goal is to put those special-needs children born to middle-class and poorer families on a level playing field with those born to wealthy parents, to give them the same access to a world-class education,” Crowell said.
Kaminsky said the $32,000-a-year tuition price tag for Giant Steps eventually may be too much for her family, and the tax credit proposal is needed for some parents, especially in rural Missouri, to access effective private programs in the first place.
The bill’s sponsor also wants school officials to recognize the potential cost savings in SB 993.
“My hope is that the public education establishment will look at it and see that special-needs children are breaking the bank for many school districts,” Crowell said. “If we can get more money put behind their pursuits so that parents can choose a public, private, or parochial school, [we’ll] be putting additional dollars into education.”
A January 2008 report from the Show-Me Institute found significant cost savings in Missouri’s previous tax credit proposals. But Roland pointed out the absence of a cap on either the number of participating students or the scholarship amount would make forecasting the savings from SB 993 nearly impossible.
“Without those kinds of boundaries, it makes it a lot more difficult to anticipate what the effect will be,” Roland said.
Roland indicated tax credits were favored as a solution over vouchers because of likely constitutional challenges to the latter stemming from the state constitution’s Blaine Amendment language.
Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.
For more information …
Missouri SB 993: http://www.house.mo.gov/billcentral.aspx
“The Fiscal Effects of a Tuition Tax Credit Program in Missouri,” by Michael Podgursky, Sarah Brodsky, and Justin Hauke, Show-Me Institute Policy Briefing, January 14, 2008: http://showmeinstitute.org/publication/id.102/pub_detail.asp