Workforce development takes lead in special session as legislature debates STEM education bill

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri Governor Mike Parson is pushing forward with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, calling state legislators back to tackle the issue in a special legislative session.

It’s an issue that has been discussed for years now, with many trying to raise the awareness and availability of math and science courses, particularly computer sciences, in order to create a more prepared workforce to meet the growing demands of businesses.

In the last legislative session, Sen. Doug Libla and Rep. Travis Fitzwater worked tirelessly to pass SB 894 through the House and Senate. It passed unanimously through the Senate with a 31-0 vote, a feat that can be quite rare in that particular chamber.

Fitzwater speaks on the House floor. PHOTO/TIM BOMMEL-HOUSE COMMS

Libla and Fitzwater’s hope with the bill was to address a growing need to increase students’ interest and access to STEM fields, noting that a number of jobs are unfilled because of a lack of applicants with those skills.

The bill would have allowed high school computer science classes to count toward math, science or elective credits required for graduation, as well as creating a statewide “STEM Career Awareness Program” to increase the awareness among junior high age students of the available career paths.

But after taking office, Gov. Parson vetoed the legislation, stating his concern that the bidding criteria outlined by a House amendment seemed to be tailored for one company.

The amendment would have set up an online program for students starting in 2019-2020, with the provider of the program meeting a majority of 12 criteria, focusing on more than 80 different STEM careers.

Fitzwater had worked with Learning Blade, the company working with Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee public school on STEM curriculum, to come up with the standards.

On September 10, the legislature will return to session, concurrent with veto session, to fix that issue. Both legislators say there is no hard feelings over the Governor’s veto, and look forward to passing the bill next week.

“I know Governor Parson is a huge supporter of job skill training and his veto of SB894 was a hard decision for him to make,” Libla said in a letter published in the Missouri Times prior to the announcement of the special session, stating his intent then to refile the bill in 2019.

That won’t be necessary, now that Parson has called a special session, and many expect the legislation to pass relatively easily, especially since the Governor himself is actively campaigning for it. On Tuesday, Parson traveled to St. Louis to speak at the nonprofit “Launch Code”, a program working to provide free training and helped match nearly 1,300 prospective employees with potential employers.

“We have all been given tremendous opportunities to succeed, and it’s important that we do our part to ensure the next generation has even better opportunities,” Parson told those in attendance at the Launch Code event. “One aspect of our call for special session is to provide high school students with expanded course access to computer science skills and career awareness for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – the workforce demands of tomorrow require our students be equipped and ready with the skills to succeed.

“Our schools play an important role in preparing our students to enter the workforce – and getting this bill done now speeds up our ability to compete on a national level – creating the workforce that is ready for the jobs of tomorrow,” he continued. “We can’t afford to delay this process, putting Missouri students further behind the curve – our students deserve the best we can offer.”

“I applaud Governor Parson for working to increase awareness of STEM career opportunities and ensure students have access to computer science courses. As chair of the Missouri Education Savings Board, I often speak with parents who want their children to have the necessary skills to compete and succeed in the 21st century workforce,” Missouri State Treasurer Eric Schmitt said. “Jobs in STEM are some of the most in-demand jobs in Missouri, and developing STEM skills benefits all sectors of Missouri’s economy.  I encourage the Missouri General Assembly to pass legislation quickly to address this issue.”

For Libla and Fitzwater, the opportunity to finally pass the bill signifies not just a major move for workforce development, but a significant investment in the future generations.

“Computer science being offered in our K-12 schools is so important to the future of our Missouri students and to the many companies that desire and depend on these skills. Thousands of high-paying jobs are available right now all across Missouri,” Libla said.

“It’s an important piece to workforce development, and I don’t know that we have time to waste on that front,” Fitzwater said. “If you keep waiting on creating those opportunities, you miss out on so many people falling through the cracks that we could provide training to.”

Both men hope that the bill will pass through with relative ease. As the House handler, Fitzwater will get the first crack at pushing it through his respective chamber, and he says that he doesn’t expect major changes to the bill language after meeting with the Governor on it.

“There’s not a whole lot changing,” he said. “There’s some clarifying language with the computer science piece, with some recommendations from DESE, and the amount of standards for the STEM curriculum will be reduced, so they’re somewhat similar standards to what we already had. Not a whole lot of changes but really a reduction in some of the language.”

The legislature returns on Monday, Sept. 10, to take up the bills for special session, with a proposed deadline set for the end of the week.

Benjamin Peters is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine, and also produces the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined the Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield. To contact Benjamin, email benjamin@themissouritimes.com or follow him on Twitter @BenjaminDPeters.