Missouri Senate debates education reform bill into early morning

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri Senators are engaging in a marathon debate over education reform.

Senate Bill 55, sponsored by Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin (R-Shelbina), touches on school choice matters like expanding charter schools and change the way state funding is allocated for virtual learning. O’Laughlin has been an advocate for education.

“I may not be an educator, but I have served on the school board with a small private school administrator and I’m an employer,” O’Laughlin.

The massive education package would allow charter schools to operate in any municipalities that has a population of more than 30,000 residents. Currently, charter schools only exist in St. Louis and Kansas City.

“Some of these children’s needs are just not being met for a variety of reasons,” said Sen. Andrew Koenig (R-St. Louis). “It may not be the fault of the public school because we can’t know every circumstance, but the parents do know their kid’s circumstance and I think they would love to have this option.”

With lots to unpack in the large bill, it would encourage public schools to allow homeschool students to participate in activities like school sports. According to the legislation, districts that violate this provision could have some of their funding from the foundation formula taken away.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden (R-Columbia) said senators have talked about funding education for years, but not about policy for K-12.

“I’m offering a blank slate to anybody that wants to come to the table and have substantive policy conversation about how to make the world better for Missouri kids,” Rowden said. “The future of our kids is too important to say that the status quo is good enough.”

The legislation also changes the way students are accepted into the Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program (MOCAP). Currently, school districts have 30 days to respond to a student who asks to enroll in the virtual program. Under the bill, the enrollment process moves from school districts to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). The department would have to the student in 10 days, opposed to 30.

“DESE has allowed schools to lower standards,” O’Laughlin said. “Some schools have lowered grade requirements, so everyone passes, and, in the meantime, it is easier for us to advert our eyes and do nothing.”

Debate on this bill start Tuesday morning around 10:30 and lasted two hours before Senators recessed for committee hearings. When they returned just before 4:30 p.m., they picked up where they left off on the bill.

“There are kids in Missouri who will never recover from the damage that has been done because we decided in this body and we decided around the state that we care more about a teacher’s union than what parents said,” Rowden said. “We cared more about a teachers union than what was in the best interest of our kids,”

Republican Sen. Karla Eslinger from Wasola is a previous superintendent and said she wants to have a conversation with other senators to make life better for Missouri kids.

“I know that together we can do what’s good for kids, but I don’t think we’ve done it to this point,” Eslinger said. “We’ve all have heard research evidence says cookie-cutter, one-way of doing things across the state generally does not fit every situation, so I promise where we have more opportunity to do regional kinds of reform pieces.”

The bill also would redirect state funds away from public schools to online programs if students are taking virtual classes.

Democratic Kansas City Sen. Lauren Arthur was previously an educator.

“I get the sense that we all care deeply about every child in every corner of that state,” Arthur said on the floor.

She questioned the first draft of the bill given to senators.

Why don’t we, instead of staying so focused on what has been a mind field, why don’t we focus instead on things that are broadly popular, have the potential to majority transform education as we know it in Missouri,” Arthur said.

Another part of the legislation would allow voters to recall school board members, who are within their first 30 days or final 180 days, with a petition signed by at least 25 percent of registered voters who participated in the election.

If SB 55 is approved by the Senate, it will head to the House.

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