JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The top Republican in the Missouri Senate said the General Assembly and the state’s education department are failing students. 

During the first two days of the 2023 legislative session, education has been a hot topic. Newly elected Senate President Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, told the upper chamber Wednesday that the state is not doing enough. His solution is that pay and funding should be based on performance. 

“We can no longer insist on a one size fits all method for defining success in our schools to cover up for underperforming buildings and districts,” Rowden said in his first speech as top leader in the Senate. “We have not done enough. DESE [the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] has not done enough. The State Board of Education has not done enough, and our students have suffered, and that has to end.”

Rowden told reporters Thursday that the conversation around education is incomplete because lawmakers and stakeholders don’t start at the root of the problem. 

“It’s not pointing fingers, it’s just we all failed, we’ve all not done enough to move the ball and more the needle properly for kids and I do think kids have suffered,” Rowden said. 

Last month, DESE showed the State Board of Education the report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) because they felt like they needed to know how Missouri compares. The main NAEP is given every other year, testing fourth and eighth graders in mathematics and reading. 

Results showed a decrease in fourth and eighth grade math and reading. Ellis said the main NAEP is given every other year, testing fourth and eighth graders in mathematics and reading. 

Missouri’s average score for fourth grade math was 232, but that’s a decline of eight points from 2019. In fourth grade reading, the state averages a score of 213, but in 2019, the score was 238. 

When it comes to eighth grade math, Missouri averaged a score of 272, a decrease from 281 in 2019. Missouri’s eighth grade reading results were 258 compared to 263 three years ago. 

Two of Missouri’s boarding states, Illinois and Iowa, still saw a decline but scored higher than the national average. 

Across the aisle, the Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said this isn’t anything new. 

“This is culmination of 10 to 15 years of them trying to break down the public school system,” Rizzo said. 

Rizzo said he wants to use the state’s $6 billion surplus to invest in schools and teachers. 

“We are 50th out of 50 in starting teacher salary,” Rizzo said. ” We are 50 out of 50 and we have billions of dollars in surplus.”

Last month, his school district in Independence with 14,000 students, voted to move to a four-day week starting next year to help retain and recruit staff. 

“The State of Missouri and the business work doesn’t work in four days, so you’re not preparing kids the way that we should,” Rizzo said. 

This year, more than 140 of Missouri’s school districts are only in session four days a week, most in rural areas, affecting less than 10% of the state’s students. That’s an increase of more than 100 schools in just four years. 

Lawmakers approved four-day weeks in the late 2000s to help schools save money during hard times. Now, it’s being used as a carrot to potential candidates, but the state’s education has previously said it’s leery. 

Missouri is a local control state, so districts don’t have to check with DESE before moving to a shortened week. It also means that legislators would have to vote in order to do away with four-day weeks.

The state’s education department says that Missouri students are required to participate in at least 1,044 hours of instruction during a school year. In order to meet that requirement, many districts that have moved to four-day weeks extend their school days. The state’s education department is asking the governor and the General Assembly to permanently increase starting teacher pay to $38,000. According to DESE, roughly 8,000 teachers are under that threshold. Under state law, the minimum is $25,000. 

While Rowden doesn’t mind increasing the overall amount, he wants that to be paired with performance. 

“Those schools that are doing incredible work, they get funded in a more holistic manner,” Rowden said. “If a world-class teacher gets paid like somebody who is not trying very hard, I think that’s a travesty and it’s hurting kids.”

Rowden said he also wants the General Assembly to pass legislation around school choice. 

“I don’t think that kids should be punished because their parents don’t have enough money in their bank account to send them somewhere,” Rowden said. 

DESE estimates there are 3,000 positions in Missouri schools that are either vacant or filled by someone not qualified this school year. Back in October, the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Blue Ribbon Commission released its report to the State Board of Education.

These recommendations come after months of researching what can be done to combat the teacher shortage:

Immediate priorities: 

  • Increasing starting teacher pay to $38,000 and have an annual review from the Joint Committee on Education to ensure teacher salaries remain competitive 
  • Fund the Career Ladder Program which rewards teachers for extracurricular activities
  • Establish sustainable funding for Grow Your Own programs, geared towards paraprofessionals, adults or high school students who want to become a teacher
  • Encourage districts to implement team-based teaching models 

Short-term priorities: 

  • Establish a fund to help local school districts pay for the increased minimum starting salary and to increase teacher pay overall
  • Increase support for educator mental health
  • Fully fund the scholarship program that offers tuition assistance to incoming teachers or to educators continuing their education 

Long-term priorities:

  • Offer salary supplements for filling high-need positions
  • Fund salary supplements for teachers with National Board Certification 

The commission also recommends DESE expand the annual teacher recruitment and retention report to include salary data for each local school district, teacher turnover broken down by student achievement and by race, a comparison of Missouri’s starting and average salaries with surrounding states, and openings that have been posted over the past year and the number of applications each opening received. 

In July, the governor approved nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to increase minimum teacher pay from $25,000 to $38,000, but only for one year. Under the legislation, the state pays for 70% while the district pays the rest, which means schools have to opt into the program, but the funding from the state is only for one year.