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The Missouri Legislature has taken up a lot of bills affecting education. Here's what to know

Student’s locker on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021, at Hoech Middle School in Breckenridge Hills.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Student’s locker on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021, at Hoech Middle School in Breckenridge Hills.

The Missouri legislative session is more than halfway done, and many different bills affecting schools are making their way through the capitol.

Education is always one of the largest themes in Jefferson City as lawmakers decide how big of a chunk it will represent in the state budget.

Issues that gained steam during the pandemic — how race and LGBTQ issues are handled in schools, and what role parents and the government should have in their child’s education — are now reaching a head in the Missouri legislature.

Here’s a look at the dozens of education-related bills making their way through the state legislature and how far they’ve made it through both chambers.

Open enrollment

The Missouri Senate will soon take up a controversial bill that would create an open enrollment system in the state’s public schools.

The bill narrowly approved by the Missouri House last month would allow students to enroll outside the school district they live in. School districts wouldn’t have to accept transferring students if they opt out of the open enrollment system, but up to 3% of students in any district could leave each year.

Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia and chairman of the Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, said a need for “parent choice” and a reconfigured senate makeup is why he could see open enrollment finally making it to the governor's desk.

“It’s not people in Jefferson City making decisions in their district. The taxpayers of that district have that power in this bill,” Pollitt said. “And if every year 3% of those folks want to leave a district, then why are we holding them captive in that district?”

Local money would stay in a student’s home district, but state and federal dollars would follow them to their new school. Critics are concerned that could defund already struggling districts and further segregate public schools.

Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, D-Kansas City, said she’s already seen how charter schools have negatively impacted public schools in Kansas City over the last few decades.

“What it's really going to do is just create more winners and losers in our educational system,” Nurrenbern said. “It's really just going to benefit those who are able to navigate another level of bureaucracy quite frankly, just like our charter schools today and having to fill out that application early to get into that lottery.”

School districts and education organizations have come out in opposition of the bill, including the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City, the Missouri Association of Rural Education and the Missouri State Teachers Association.

The push for open enrollment comes as Republicans prioritize “school choice” legislation amid increasing criticism of public schools. Missouri legislators are also pursuing a bill that would expand eligibility and funding for a new private school voucher program that launched last summer.

The bill was referred to the Senate Education and Workforce Development committee on March 30 and a public hearing was held on April 4. If the bill passes, transfers would begin in the 2024-2025 school year.

Legislation targeting transgender youth

Missouri legislators discussed a wave of anti-trans bills this legislative session, mirroring a nationwide effort to pass hundreds of laws targeting LGBTQ rights.

The Missouri Senate passed a pair of bills last month barring transgender minors from receiving gender-affirming health care and participating in sports that align with their gender identity. Both bills faced multiple days of filibustering before their approval and still need to pass in the House. The bills are slated to be heard in a House committee Tuesday.

One of the bills would bar transgender children under the age of 18 from accessing transition-related health care like puberty blockers and hormone treatments.

The other bill prohibits athletes from participating in a sport “that is designated for the biological sex opposite to the student's biological sex as correctly stated on the student's official birth certificate.” The ban would apply to public, charter and private schools through the collegiate level.

Supporters of the bills say the purpose is to protect children.

Tori Schafer, deputy director of policy and campaign at the ACLU of Missouri, said these bills jeopardize students’ mental health and wellbeing.

“We know that having the opportunity to participate in sports results in positive outcomes for students, which includes things like better grades, greater homework completion, higher educational and occupational aspirations, and improve self-esteem,” Shaefer said. “Efforts to ban trans students from participating in school sports actually do the exact opposite.”

The Missouri State High School Activities Association already has guidelines on sports participation for transgender athletes. Associate Executive Director Stacy Schroeder said in an email that if the Missouri legislature updates a state law it would supersede the association’s by-laws or policies if they are contradicting. She said the association would work with member schools to meet the state law’s requirements.

Both bills have received second readings in the House. If passed, they would end four years after going into effect but could be extended by lawmakers.

Teacher pay, retention and education funding

Missouri pays its teachers some of the lowest salaries in the nation, but there is some movement on legislation that could change that.

The General Assembly approved a grant program to help boost pay last year — but it’s temporary and districts still have to foot 30% of the bill. Legislators on both sides of the aisle filed several bills this session to permanently raise teacher pay, but have different thoughts on how that should happen.

A bill that would address a few teacher pay issues passed the House and is awaiting consideration in the Senate. It would raise the minimum teacher salary from $25,000 to $38,000 starting in the 2024-2025 school year and allow districts to raise pay scales for “hard-to-staff” subject areas or “hard-to-staff” schools. Like last year, districts can still apply for a grant to assist in paying these salaries in the first few years of the increase.

The bill would also remove a cap on how much the state’s education funding formula can grow each year. The state’s funding formula has received criticism for how its reliance on local sources to fund schools creates inequities for school districts and leaves some stretched thin.

There are also efforts to address school staffing shortages in other ways. The senate passed a bill allowing retired teachers to work for more years in districts with shortages of teachers and non-certified positions like bus drivers or cafeteria workers, without jeopardizing their retirement benefits. The House’s bill addressing multiple teacher pay issues includes similar language. Last year, similar legislation made it easier for retired teachers to work as substitutes.

A proposed state budget approved by the House would provide $10 billion in K-12 spending, fully fund school transportation, and some funding for pre-kindergarten.

Parents’ rights

The senate passed a bill that ties together multiple policies related to transparency and rights for parents, as well as restrictions on how race is talked about in schools.

The bill would create a state database of curricula, textbooks and other instructional materials called the Missouri Education Transparency and Accountability Portal. Citizens would be able to access this information for each school, and there would be additional requirements about providing information to parents within certain timeframes.

The Missouri State Teachers Association has concerns about what will be done with this information and what the legislation will mean for educators.

“If they're having to do additional administrative work for any kind of reference material they use, I think that's just an additional burden that isn't benefiting student achievement, but it's really just there to create this massive database,” said Matt Michelson, MSTA’s Director of Education Policy.

The bill also includes language regulating the “discussion of certain concepts and beliefs” in schools. That includes the idea that individuals, because of their identity, “bear collective guilt and are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by others.”

The House’s version of the state budget also removes funding for programs that have become a target for conservative activists. Throughout the budget, funding for programs or staff related to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is prohibited, including for public higher education institutions and for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Republicans in the senate have indicated that they will not let a fight over this language hold up the budget process. The chair of the chamber’s appropriations committee, Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, said he will not include the prohibition.

Earlier in the session, legislation known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill narrowly passed a senate committee. The legislation would prevent teachers and other school personnel from discussing gender identity or sexual orientation. That bill hasn’t seen any further action in the legislature in almost two months.

Library funding in flux

Last month, the Missouri House of Representatives passed a version of the state budget that removed $4.5 million in funding for public libraries.

While the funding only affects public libraries, it was removed in reaction to a lawsuit related to libraries in public schools. The Missouri Library Association and the Missouri Association of School Librarians filed a lawsuit with the ACLU to challenge a law that resulted in the removal of hundreds of books from libraries across the state last year.

“I don't think we should subsidize that effort, so we're going to take out the funding,” said Rep. Cody Smith, R-Carthage.

The librarian groups say state funding has not paid for the lawsuit.

“Our organizations are volunteer-led,” MASL President Melissa Corey said. “Members can voluntarily join through membership dues, but we are not state funded organizations. The other large piece of this is that the ACLU is offering their services pro bono, so completely free.”

The budget is now being discussed by the Senate and could still change significantly before its final form. Sen. Hough told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the library funding will go back into the budget.

Sports wagering

The Senate spent hours this week debating a bill that would make sports wagering legal in Missouri, but didn’t take a vote on the legislation. The House passed its version of a sports betting bill in March. Taxes from the proceeds would go toward an education fund.

STLPR's Sarah Kellogg contributed to this report.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
I report on agriculture and rural issues for Harvest Public Media and am the Senior Environmental Reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. You can reach me at kgrumke@stlpr.org.
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