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Few changes to K-12 education pending as Missouri legislature remains ‘bogged down’

Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio

As the clock winds down on the Missouri General Assembly’s regular session, legislators distracted by the Greitens scandal have done little to change the public school landscape. But that could change in coming weeks as a massive policy bill nears passage and the two chambers negotiate differences in the education budget.

Legislators have until Friday to reconcile a $50 million difference in funding for K-12 education. The House version of the budget increases spending by $98 million, which would fully fund the foundation formula that determines the disbursement of state money to districts, based on their enrollment. The increase also includes more money for early childhood education, which was triggered by fully funding the formula in last year’s budget.

The Senate version, meanwhile, only increases the formula by $48 million while raising transportation funding — another part of state education aid that’s been chronically underfunded — by $25 million. Senate Republicans said the $50 million was needed elsewhere in the budget, while Democrats argue putting the money toward schools would help improve the state’s workforce.

A committee will resolve differences before the final version goes up for approval in both chambers.

“We would love to see on both of those lines, both sides win out if the money is actually there,” said Mike Lodewegen, the director of government affairs for the Missouri Association of School Administrators, which represents superintendents.

Some efforts still alive

Observers are hesitant to call anything dead with two weeks left in the regular session and eyes are on a growing education omnibus bill.

“Legislation here in the final weeks of the session is kind of bogged down a bit because of the political climate and the governor’s situation,” said Brent Ghan, a spokesman for the Missouri School Boards Association. “But with the legislative session, you never say never until that final adjournment.”

An attempt to bring charter schools outside of the state’s two largest cities didn’t gain traction this year. Proponents had high hopes expansion would pass last year, but a narrower attempt still didn’t win over rural Republicans who oppose the independently-run but publicly funded schools. Another initiative under the broad banner of “school choice,” education savings accounts, also didn’t muster much backing from lawmakers this session. The accounts allow families to divert some income toward private school tuition tax-free.

Omnibus bill

Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo I St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri General Assembly has until Friday to finalize a budget, including rectifying a $50 million difference in K-12 education funding.

Lawmakers are compiling several education initiatives into a single piece of legislation in hope of improving its chance of passing. What started out as a two-page bill on high school equivalency exams is now 55 pages, thanks to two dozen amendments from both chambers.

“I’d say probably it’s the largest education bill in at least the last two years,” said Matt Michaelson, the government relations manager with the Missouri State Teachers Association union.

The bill’s original intent is to reimburse the fee for first-time takers of the high school equivalency exam. Missouri uses the HiSET exam, which costs $95, rather than the more costly and commonly known GED, which on average costs $120.

The opportunity to take the exam for free would open up economic improvement to people who can’t afford the fee, said by Rep. Elaine Gannon, R-De Soto, who has introduced similar legislation in previous sessions.

“Each year we have gotten a little further and a little further. And we were kind of determined this year to get it across the finish line,” Gannon said.

The bill does not put any money into the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s budget to cover the cost of the test. Gannon said that will come later, once education officials can determine demand. Gannon estimates there are 15,000 potential test takers. If every person took the exam, it would cost $1.4 million.

“I know the state was not going to fund that this year,” Gannon said. Next year she plans to ask for half that amount in the budget.

Several items tacked onto the omnibus bill are policies that have come up in previous sessions but failed to make it through. They include placing a teacher on the State Board of Education as a non-voting member. Supporters say that would provide an added perspective to board members.

Another change would be to the state’s virtual education program, which allows students in rural districts to take some courses remotely.

One provision would expand gifted education programs and allow students to be screened for the accelerated learning environments at the request of their parents. Some districts already allow this, while in others screening is only initiated by teachers.

Another amendment creates a state-managed fund that supports career and technical education student organizations.

The regular session ends May 18.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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