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An education match made in heaven? Well, maybe in Jeff City

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 22, 2010 - One partner scurries to get the kids out the door every day, checking their homework and making an appointment with the teachers on conference day to keep track of progress in the classroom.

Another is concerned with rising tuition bills, preparing students for the transition from campus to the workplace, conducting research, working with private corporations and making sure that a diploma means graduates are well-educated and not just that they have spent the right number of hours in class.

And don't forget the little ones, whose preparation in the crucial pre-kindergarten years could very well determine how successful they are in school and in life later on.

Can a partnership like this, forged in the tough financial furnace of Jefferson City, survive and thrive? In the waning weeks of the legislative session, lawmakers will decide whether educators who oversee early childhood, kindergarten through high school and undergraduate and graduate classes at the college level should be served by one department.

The proposal was made last month by Gov. Jay Nixon as part of his plan to downsize Missouri government. It took legislative shape in a bill introduced by state Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, who is president pro tem of the Senate. Thursday afternoon, the Senate passed the bill  by a vote of 30-0. It now goes to the House.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which has 1,750 employees, dwarfs the much smaller Department of Higher Education, with its 75 employees. DESE's budget is $5.4 billion a year, including the foundation formula. Higher Ed's is $1.3 billion, including state aid to students.

The proposed merging of the two departments would save $1 million, Linda Luebbering, Missouri budget director, said. Those savings are mainly in administrative costs, she added.

The main reason Nixon is proposing the merger, Luebbering said, is that he "believes combining them together will lead to better coordination'' of education services for students. Savings was never the main driver, she said. 

The scope of the bill has changed. Originally, Shields proposed that the unified education department be governed by a single board with one member from each of the state's nine congressional districts, plus four additional members, with backgrounds in higher education, elementary and secondary education, early childhood education and economic development.

After prolonged, sometimes barbed discussion this week -- at one point, Shields said that the state's Coordinating Board for Higher Education is a classic oxymoron -- the makeup of the proposed board shifted. Under a new proposal, it would have just six members.

Any changes would require a vote of the people to change the constitution. If approved by the House after today's action in the Senate, the amendment -- maybe more than one -- would be on the ballot this November. If the constitutional change is approved by the people, lawmakers would then have the biggest task ahead of them: figuring out how the separate parts of the new department would work as one.

Members of the boards over all three education sectors met Thursday in Jefferson City to discuss the legislation. After the Senate passed the consolidation bill, the Coordinating Board for Higher Education issued a statement:

"The Coordinating Board for Higher Education strongly supports efforts to create a more effective education system for Missourians. The passage by the Missouri Senate of SJR 45 is an important first step toward achieving this goal. The (board) is committed to engaging with all interested parties in developing the final structure of a single board and defining statutory details to ensure the needs of all postsecondary students are addressed." 



When Nixon announced his proposal last month -- part of a larger program of cuts, ranging from fewer state employees to changing pension systems to capping tax credits to eliminating some state holidays -- reaction from those most directly involved varied.

Robert B. Stein, the commissioner of higher education who is poised to retire at the end of June, supported the concept, saying it could result in savings but cautioning that the state must make sure that the new department served the state in the best possible way.

"Unprecedented problems," he said, "call for creative, innovative solutions."

Chris Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, was more noncommittal, noting that the two agencies and their boards already work together, with an overarching mission to maintain high-quality education at every level, preschool to graduate school.

For his part, Shields says his bill is designed to make Missouri education more efficient across the whole spectrum.

"You really want pre-kindergarten working with K-12 working with higher ed people working with the economic development people," he said in an interview Wednesday. "That's the goal, and putting them in the same board would go a long way toward accomplishing that."

He said that while such cooperation and coordination are already going on to a certain degree, the state's budget crunch provided an opportunity to save some money and increase efficiency at the same time.

"It's like that old saying, never let a good crisis go to waste," Shields said. "This may be one of those situations where you wouldn't necessarily do something if times were more flush." 




In a series of entries on his blog, Stein has discussed the opportunities and pitfalls ahead for the integration of his higher education department with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Likening it to putting together a jigsaw puzzle, he notes where the two departments are similar, where they are different and how both could benefit if they worked more closely together.

Currently, he points out, both departments are governed by boards appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. From there significant differences emerge.

For example, attendance in K-12 is mandatory, at least to a certain age, while college attendance is voluntary, with schools competing for enrollment and students having to come up the money to pay tuition and fees.

Both departments deal with boards that operate on a more local level, either the state's public school districts or the boards of colleges and universities. In elementary and secondary schools, the emphasis is on preparing students for whatever awaits them after high school; on campus, the focus can be career preparation, academic research or working with private industry.

Stein notes that for a long time, in Missouri and elsewhere, educators have worked to integrate the two systems more carefully, and work with pre-kindergarten to make sure students arrive in K-12 ready to learn. In some respects, that integration has worked; elsewhere, Stein says, "the pipeline is leaky, however, and some repairs will be easier than others."

In an interview, he elaborated on his views, nothing that the important things is not how the departments are structured but how they operate within whatever framework the state ends up with.

"Nothing in a structure is inherently good or bad," he said. "You can make most structures work if you pay attention to detail and look at leadership and vision and hold your feet to the fire. Governance is not a cure-all or a solution. It does provide different lenses, different tributaries, different avenues. But you have to make governance work."




That view was put under the microscope at Thursday's joint meeting in Jefferson City. Stein reminded members of all the boards represented that a new organization does not have to mean leaving previous work behind.

"We shouldn't forget that Missouri has a lot of expertise," he said, "and it shouldn't just discard those who have been at the table previously."

In a sentiment echoed several times, by several others, he added:

"We all need to be focused on what is best for kids."

Figuring out how that focus will work took up most of the discussion. Archie, of the state board, worried that a single department might end up being more politicized and that a smaller board may mean that people from Missouri who now are influential in national education organizations may lose that status and that expertise.

Mary Beth Luna Wolf, vice chair of the Coordinating Board for Higher Education, wanted the conversation to concentrate less on the specific makeup of whatever board emerges and more on what the board would be able to do.

"I don't think the question is how many people should be on the board," she said. "The question should be what are we going to do to change things. You can have conversations, but without power you can't get a lot of things done."

With just more than three weeks left in the legislative session, members of both boards said they were ready to meet again or provide whatever guidance needed to shape the final proposal.

And other parties are sure to weigh in. On Saturday, the Missouri School Boards Association came out against the merger, saying that the proposed six-member board would not be sufficient to govern both higher education and K-12 schools and expressing concern that would require Senate confirmation of the new education commissioner.

"It's difficult to see how this proposed merger will improve the quality of education for the 900,000 public school students in our state," said Peggy Taylor, a school board member from Nixa and head of the statewide organization. "A decision of this magnitude deserves much more study in order to understand its implications for education in Missouri."

Nicastro, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, wanted to make sure the emphasis remained on what all of the board members are trying to accomplish.

"We're talking about process instead of product," she said. "We're talking about resources instead of results. We need to focus on the purpose of what we want to do, to eliminate a silo approach to the education of Missourians, from pre-school to college graduation."

The result, she said, would be to move the state's schools more toward the top of the pack.

"Right now," Nicastro said, "our performance matches our geography, right in the middle. That's not where we want to be."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.