House rushes to vote on education consolidation
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House rushes to vote on education consolidation

Date: May 4, 2010
By: Trevor Eischen
State Capitol Bureau
Links: SJR 44 and SJR 45

JEFFERSON CITY - Opposition emerged Tuesday in the House Higher Education Committee to a Senate-passed plan to merge the state's two education departments.

Democratic representatives on the committee expressed their concerns with the consolidation plan proposed by Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, which would combine the Higher Education and Elementary and Secondary Education departments.

"My concern is the loss of expertise," Rep. Sue Schoemehl, D-St. Louis, said, referring to the elimination of the current board members for a smaller board. "I want to make sure when we do this combination that we don't lose valuable people."

Under the proposal passed by the Senate, the new Education Board would consist of six members -- nominated by the governor -- who each would serve staggered six-year terms.

Currently, the Education Department is governed by an eight-member board and the Higher Education Department by a nine-member board.

Shields urged the House to change the Senate-passed plan to provide for nine members based on congressional districts, though Missouri might lose a congressional seat after the 2010 Census results are tallied.

Rep. Jill Schupp, D-St. Louis County, said she was concerned that the joint resolution didn't require the six members to have background in education or administration.

Shields said he didn't think the governor would nominated someone without adequate experience, but that the Senate could vote against nominee deemed ill-suited when the person was up for confirmation. 

Rep. Margo McNeil, D-St. Louis County, said communication between the different parts in the education system will always cause problems, and to have one board governing all aspects of education would be ineffective compared to two separate governing boards addressing the needs of each. She also said the merger won't fix Missouri's education problems.

"There's a whole lot more involved to educate children than combining the two boards together," said Rep. Margo McNeil, D-St. Louis County.

With less than two weeks left in Missouri's legislative session, time is running out for the House to consider merging the education departments.

Paul Wagner, deputy commissioner for the Higher Education Department, and Michael Nietzel, Gov. Jay Nixon's adviser on higher education, testified in support of the consolidation.

Wagner said the commissioner and the Coordinating Board supported the measure, under the condition that the new education board respect higher education's part in the decision-making process.

"We must be cautious about higher education losing visibility under a single board," Wagner said. 

Nietzel said public universities in the state waste $53 million in funding remediation classes and programs to help students meet state school standards. He said if high schools did a better job preparing students for higher education, that $53 million could be used for other areas of higher education.

Nietzel said Nixon, who suggested department consolidation in a March speech, supports the current merger plan. He said the education departments' governing model reflects a time when higher education wasn't the priority it is now.

"If you think about it historically, the partitioning that we have of elementary and secondary is largely an artifact of an era in which a high school diploma was the educational passport to most good occupations outside of the professions" Nietzel said.

Because the joint resolutions require changing the Missouri Constitution, Missourian voters would make the final decision on the November ballot, although the governor could place it on the August primary ballot. If the constitutional change passed, Missouri wouldn't be the only state with one Education Department.

Idaho, New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania each have a single education department that oversees K-12 and higher education, Nietzel said, and Ohio and Virginia have special commissions to promote better connection between K-12.

Although Shields said the merger would save money, he said the main goal is to create cooperation between K-12 and higher education administrators and educators.

"These people need to be talking together," Shields said. "They need to be on the same page."

The committee will continue listening to testimony and vote on the joint resolutions Thursday.