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Education reform bill stalls after overnight debate — but supporters say not for long

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Shortly after 1 a.m. Wednesday, Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden adjourned the Senate after the upper chamber spent nearly 12 hours debating a sweeping education reform bill — without moving on it. 

The 96-page SB 55 contains myriad provisions from expanding charter schools to increasing funding for K-12 transportation. A Senate substitute was adopted early Wednesday morning, derailing the filibuster and any further changes set to be made on the bill that night as the Senate appeared not to have the required votes necessary to perfect the legislation. 

After the substitute was adopted, Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin ultimately laid the bill over — and the Senate has three days to vote to reconsider. Sources said a vote to reconsider seems to be the favored option as of early Wednesday morning. 

“As soon as all the senators are back, we quickly expect to perfect and third read legislation that finally funds students and not systems,” one source said. “For far too long, students have been trapped in failing schools. 2021 will be the year we finally give parents more options by putting students first.”

The massive bill would allow charter schools to operate in any district or municipality with a population greater than 30,000 people. 

The bill also tied the creation of a Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) to an increase of the K-12 transportation line item in the state budget to be funded by at least 40 percent. It also sets up a board to oversee ESA programs, similar to what has already been established to oversee the Missouri 529 Education Plan. 

It also includes an amendment from Sen. Mike Moon requiring written permission from parents before a school can provide any course materials or instruction “relating to human sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases.” This amendment narrowly passed 17-16 — which also resulted in a bit of a mixup as senators attempted to change their vote. 

The Senate substitute removed provisions related to recalling school board members included in previous versions. 

SB 55 is a labor of love for the Conservative Caucus — but in particular, O’Laughlin. The Republican from SD 18, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, was back in the Capitol to present her legislation Tuesday after being sidelined with an illness for much of the start of session. 

“This, I think, is how we figure out the path forward. I hope each of you will join me and recognize that our state can do better if we all work together and don’t run scared,” O’Laughlin said Tuesday morning while presenting her bill. 

Rowden had kicked off the debate Tuesday morning with a call for civility. He said he has been “frustrated” by what he has seen as a “lack of intelligence and lack of civility” when it comes to education reform discussions. He encouraged senators to engage in a “substantive policy discussion about how to make the world better for Missouri’s kids.” 

“I do think for either side, mine included, to think that the only acceptable path forward is us, is my thing, the status quo, is just unimaginable at this point,” Rowden said. “To politicize the future of our kids and the next generation and dwindle it down to a number of votes in the chamber, who are we to play God?”

The Senate last voted to reconsider at the end of session last year after the lower chamber snuck in a measure perceived to hinder electric co-ops, namely the Grain Belt Project, into an omnibus transportation bill at the very end of session. 

Charter school legislation also appears to be having a rough time in the lower chamber. With rumors swirling that the House does not have enough votes, multiple state representatives have accused the speaker of using strong-arming tactics in an attempt to persuade them to promote education reform packages, particularly those dealing with charter schools. 

Back in the Senate, here’s a look at what else SB 55 would do. 

Homeschool + activities 

The bill prohibits school districts from participating with any statewide activities association that prevents or discourages home school students from engaging. Districts in violation of this provision could lose funding from the foundation formula. 

COVID-19 + attendance 

SB 55 attempts to curb schools from receiving waivers related to attendance and the COVID-19 pandemic beginning with the 2021-2022 school year. An exception to this provision is granted if the district allows in-person education for at least four days of the week or can prove a specific reason to cancel school, such as a lack of substitute teachers. 

O’Laughlin said some Missouri schools have continuously moved the goalposts when it comes to reopening. 

“So we have about 60,000 students who are not in seats, and across our state, kids are failing — both in grades and mental health,” she said. “DESE has allowed standards to be lowered; some schools have lowered grade requirements so everyone passes, and in the meantime, it is easier for many of us to avert our eyes and do nothing because we know we will be excoriated by unions and lobbyists.”