One of the first major policy issues introduced in the Missouri General Assembly every year is K-12 education funding, which takes up a fifth of the state budget.
With a new governor and leadership in both chambers, expect a different debate about education than recent years, but over some perennial issues.
Here are five things to keep an eye on:
How much money to dole out to Missouri’s 500-plus school districts is the dominating annual debate in education legislation.
The formula “is the key thing that tries to provide adequate funding and make sure it’s there for every kid,” said Otto Fajen, a lobbyist for the Missouri chapter of the National Education Association teachers’ union. “That’s always an important priority.”
When the formula is “fully funded” it’s an easy hook for lawmakers to hang their hats on. The formula has been considered fully funded in recent years, but that’s largely because lawmakers have lowered what they consider the target funding amount.
The state education department is requesting a $61.4 million increase in funding for next year, raising full funding to $3.55 billion.
Gov. Mike Parson called on lawmakers to fully fund the formula during his State of the State address.
But House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a Springfield Democrat, called for more money for education than just funding the formula in a press conference in the capitol Tuesday.
“Meeting our statutory obligations to adequately fund public education always has been and always will be a top priority for Democrats,” she said. “Doing the minimal is not enough.”
Fully funding the foundation formula has long come at the expense of other forms of state aid to schools. Namely, covering most of the cost for running buses. The state is supposed to reimburse districts about 75 percent of the cost of transporting students. In recent years, that’s been much closer to 15 percent, much to the chagrin of district administrators. They’ve told St. Louis Public Radio they’re getting used to the low reimbursements.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is asking the legislature to scale up transportation funding over the next few years.
“If transportation isn't funded then the districts have to come up with that money from somewhere else,” Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven told St. Louis Public Radio this month. “So they will take it from the formula in order to cover transportation. It's not something they can simply not choose to do, it's in the law they're required to transport children.”
Parson’s budget asked for $10 million more for transportation. Democrats call it a start, but nowhere near enough.
Parson signaled early childhood education would be a large part of his agenda during his first session as governor.
“I think the state, at some point, will have to take a role in early childhood development — and understand that’s a long term goal,” Parson said in a St. Louis Public Radio interview.
A call for putting money toward that expansion is absent from his official budget.
Key legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle are in agreement with the importance of expanding early learning as a long term economic investment. While there’s consensus on the importance of preschool expansion, there is still a big question mark on paying for it. The state presently pays little for public preschool and districts that offer education to kids younger than 5 either charge tuition or cobble together money from several sources.
There’s talk at the capitol about finding new revenue sources but even if lawmakers agree to collect internet sales tax or increase cigarette taxes, two ideas being floated, there will be several suitors for those funds.
Parson has also signaled he doesn’t expect this to be settled in a single session. That means don’t expect a major expansion of preschool funding to happen this year but important groundwork could be laid.
School choice advocates were more bullish about the prospects of expanding charter schools beyond the borders of Missouri’s two largest cities under ex-Gov. Eric Greitens but expect there to be another push in 2019.
“We’re anticipating that issue’s going to be back in the session and get some attention,” said Brent Gahn, a spokesman for the Missouri School Boards Association, or MSBA, which opposes charter school expansion.
Parson seemed tepid on the idea in an interview with the MSBA.
The latest attempt at expanding charter schools would authorize the independently operated public schools in cities of more than 30,000 residents. That may quell fears of rural and small-town lawmakers but expert there to still be blowback.
Democrats have introduced a bill that would require municipalities to vote to allow charter schools before they can open.
Backers of traditional public schools say charters need more accountability before they’re allowed to expand. Charter advocates are asking for equal funding and say local districts should have more involvement in the authorization of new schools.
One other charter school measure to watch will be changes to the lottery system charters are required to use if applications outpace open spots.
After several years of effort, the legislature last year updated the lottery system to allow charters to give added preference to disadvantaged students. Proponents say that will help them keep the student body at successful charter schools diverse.
But it was later discovered charter schools could not use income as a measure. Charter advocates are hoping for a fix this session.
Who governs St. Louis Public Schools is actually in the hands of a different group that meets in Jefferson City: The Missouri State Board of Education.
The state school board bumped SLPS up to full accreditation in late 2016, spurring the long transition out of a decade of state control.
The state-appointed Special Administrative Board has voted to cede power back to an elected school board. That group of elected board members is currently undergoing training and when the state school board deems them ready, they’re expected vote to return control to them.
There’s no timeline on that but the elected board wants to be back in the driver’s seat by the start of the 2019-2020 school year.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney