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Education and the 1996 Legislative Session

May 18, 1996
By: Joseph Morton
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - As this year's legislative session closes, state Education Department officials are smiling.

Missouri legislators this year gave schools a significant funding increase and left the department's academic reform efforts alone.

The biggest victory for education this session was a hefty budget of $3.4 billion, $200 million more than last year.

"The appropriations process was the best news overall for education this year," said Senate Education Committee Chairman Joe Moseley, D-Columbia.

Included in this windfall for education is full funding of the foundation formula, through which state money is distributed to public school districts.

"This is the first time in decades we've had full funding of the formula," said DeeAnn Aull, a lobbyist for the Missouri State Teachers Association.

"Full funding" of the formula means $1.4 billion, an 18 percent increase over what the schools received through the formula last year.

"The school districts should be very happy about what they are receiving under full funding of the formula," said Linda Luebbering, of the Education Department's budget office. "This is a very substantial increase."

But schools will receive money from other sources as well. A bill sent to the governor, sponsored by Sen. Joe Maxwell, D-Mexico, gives some relief to smaller school districts suffering from a variety of financial woes.

The wide-ranging bill centers on helping school districts struggling with current state requirements.

It restructures the foundation formula to help out school districts that were seriously hurt by recent reassessments of local property and lets school districts keep some of the railroad taxes collected by the state.

Besides financial concerns, education was the focus of a number of policy issues.

One large bill that meant both monetary and policy advances for education this year was the Safe Schools Initiative. A $10 million grant program in the bill is intended to help schools set up alternative education, so that unruly children can be removed from the classrooms in which they disrupt the learning environment.

Other provisions in the bill establish communication requirements between juvenile officials and school administrators and make it a felony to assault someone on school grounds.

"This strong legislation gives schools the tools to aggressively deal with violence," Van Zandt said. "It strikes a balance between local control and state policy."

Despite such gains, department officials say one of the most pleasing aspects of the session involved what legislators didn't do - interrupt the restructuring of the Missouri's curriculum under the "Show-Me standards."

Republicans sponsored a slew of bills that revised the standards and their accompanying curriculum frameworks, but all of the bills were stranded in committee and never saw the light of floor debate.

"We're glad the legislature is allowing us to stay the course and continue with these reforms," said Education Department lobbyist Mark Van Zandt.

Smaller victories for education included removal of an entrance exam for first grade that was widely condemned by teachers and the limitation of a bill that originally killed several election dates.

"Schools need as many election dates as possible," Aull said.

Indirectly education also won with bills like the telecommunications bill, which will help some schools take advantage of new technology, she said.

With a full bank account and supportive policy decisions, education officials were solid in their praise of this year's legislation.

"It has been an excellent session," Aull said.