JEFFERSON CITY — No one voiced opposition to a bill providing children of undocumented immigrants in-state tuition in a Senate committee hearing Wednesday, something the bill's sponsor said was a surprise.
Still, Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Jackson County, said she wasn't confident the legislation would move any closer to becoming law in the coming year.
The bill would provide Missouri students in the country without legal documentation in-state tuition rates at Missouri's colleges and universities.
It requires that they graduate from high school, live with a parent or guardian while attending high school and go to a Missouri high school for at least two years. They also must file an affidavit with their college or university promising they will apply for permanent U.S. residency when the opportunity becomes available.
Missouri is losing talented young students because they don't have options after graduation, Justus told the Senate Education Committee.
"High school counselors have told me they're having a really hard time engaging some of the students – preventing dropouts, preventing gang activity, keeping kids engaged – when they know that as soon as they graduate, they don't have documentation to work and they don't have the financial ability to be able to go to college," Justus said.
Education groups and the Catholic Charities of St. Louis gave supportive testimony during the 10-minute hearing.
"Some of these children have been in Missouri since they were little kids," said Otto Fajen, spokesman for the Missouri National Education Association. Fajen said the bill would provide "those people who identify themselves with this country, with this state, the opportunity to continue to develop their services and develop to the best of their ability."
The committee's chairman, Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, said the hearing was an opportunity for Justus to present her bill. It's now up to her to drum up support, he said. Pearce wouldn't say when or if he would schedule a committee vote.
"If we don't get a vote this year, that's OK, we'll file it again next year and hope we can advance a step further," said Justus, who has sponsored the legislation for two consecutive years. "We're in this for the long haul."
Other states, including neighboring Kansas, Illinois and Nebraska, have passed similar bills, Justus said.
The committee later voted 6-3 to pass a bill making the maximum Access Missouri scholarship money equally available to private and public institution students.
Scholarship recipients, regardless of whether they attend public or private institutions, would get a maximum of $2,850 annually under the bill. That's a $700 jump for students attending public colleges and universities and an $1,800 decrease for private school students. Students attending two-year institutions could receive a maximum of $1,250 per year.
The Access Missouri program provides need-based funding to college students.
"People argue that private schools are more expensive," said Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, who sponsored the bill. "But we don't ever reward people for choosing the more expensive option."
If the legislature passes the bill and the governor signs it, the new funding amounts would go into effect for the 2014-15 school year.
Former Education Committee Chairman Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, was among the three lawmakers voting against the bill Wednesday.
A year ago, when Mayer was chairman, the bill didn't come up for a vote in the committee, Schaefer said.