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Missouri House approved millions in COVID funds for Kansas City-area schools. What's next?

High school students, some masked and some not, walk out of a school building between two yellow, parked school buses.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3

The budget bill still needs to make it through the contentious Missouri Senate. The $1.95 billion in federal education funds for Missouri includes more than $250 million for the Kansas City area.

A bill containing more than $250 million in funding for Kansas City-area school districts cleared the Missouri House of Representatives on Thursday and will go to the state Senate.

After local school districts expressed concern that the legislature was nearing the March 24 deadline to release the majority of a nearly $2 billion federal relief package for K-12 education in the state, lawmakers approved a supplemental budget that kept the funding largely intact.

But some Democrats criticized changes to the spending plan that they worried could risk violating federal guidelines or could make it difficult for families to access.

“This isn’t the time for us to micromanage how DESE (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) utilizes their funds, but that’s what’s happening in this bill,” said Rep. Ingrid Burnett, a Democrat from Kansas City.

School districts are eager to receive the funding because it affects their planning, such as for summer programming, and is directed toward COVID-19-related needs such as making up for pandemic learning loss and improving air quality.

Missouri is unusual for still holding onto the money, as most other states have already released their relief funding.

The budget, which includes other spending such as Medicaid funding and raises for state workers, would have to be approved by the state Senate and signed by Gov. Mike Parson before March 24 for schools to receive the majority of the money. Otherwise it returns to the federal government.

It passed the House by a vote of 114 yes, 11 no and 25 present. Most of the no votes came from Republicans, while many Democrats voted present.

Concerns over funding a grant program

In a statement emailed to The Kansas City Beacon on Thursday, Mallory McGowin, the chief communications officer for DESE, said the department “will continue to work with the Legislature and the U.S. Department of Education to ensure the relief funds are distributed in the best way possible for Missouri students.”

According to plans based on a federal formula and approved by DESE, 90% of the funds would be distributed as direct payments to every Missouri district or charter school.

Kansas City Public Schools would receive more than $64 million, Independence Public Schools would receive more than $34 million and Hickman Mills C-1 Schools would receive $26.8 million. Kansas City charter schools would receive nearly $53 million combined.

House Budget Committee Chair Cody Smith, a Republican from Carthage who sponsored the spending bill, left the direct aid to school districts intact in the proposal the House approved. However, the bill specifies that schools’ funding will be reduced if they teach too much of the school year remotely.

There were more extensive changes to the 10% of the funding that was destined for DESE.

Instead of providing the dollars as a lump sum for DESE to use according to its approved plan, the proposal specifies how chunks of the money should be spent, such as for summer school programs and teacher retention grants.

Smith said during debate Wednesday that he chose those areas after discussing urgent needs with the department.

But his version of the bill also set aside $75 million of federal funding, including some left over from an earlier stimulus package, to create “Close the Gap” grants to reimburse families for educational enrichment expenses like tutoring and summer camps, up to $1,500 per child. Low-income families would receive first priority.

Burnett said she thought the grants could be a good idea but was worried it would be difficult to create and administer a new program before the fiscal year ends June 30.

She introduced an amendment that would return the proposal to what the governor recommended, providing the full amount of funds to DESE as a single unrestricted payment.

“DESE does have a plan that they submitted to the federal government as to how they were going to spend this 10%,” Burnett said. “What we’ve done in the committee substitute is overwrite that and create our own. We’re not even sure that we have the authority to do that.”

In opposing the amendment, Smith said he designed the grants as a simple way to get direct funds to parents. He decided to use a third-party vendor to distribute them rather than DESE to avoid burdening the department.

Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, also a Democrat from Kansas City, questioned who the third-party vendor would be and what percentage of the money it would receive.

Some representatives also questioned whether low-income families would have the disposable income to spend up to $1,500 per child and then be reimbursed later, especially not knowing for sure how much money they would receive.

If every income-eligible family applies to the program — which isn’t likely — the payment amount would be less than $200, according to calculations Smith cited.

“Our families with means to front this money for these educational opportunities are going to benefit more,” said Rep. Ashley Aune, a Democrat from Kansas City. “We know that especially when we’re talking about reimbursement.”

Aune proposed an amendment to have DESE administer the program, a move she argued would improve oversight and make distribution more equitable.

Smith said it isn’t possible for the program to be a “hindrance” to any families, and that if not enough low-income families are able to apply the program will open to a broader group of Missourians.

Both Aune’s and Burnett’s amendments failed shortly before the bill received preliminary approval.

The proposal now goes to the Senate, which has recently been caught up in a dayslong controversy over redistricting.

A bipartisan group of woman senators recently criticized the filibusters for derailing other Senate business.

Earlier this week, Burnett told The Beacon it was unclear whether the Senate would be able to move past “ideological arguing” and give the necessary attention to education funding.

This story was originally published on the Kansas City Beacon.

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.
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