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Lawmakers question DESE on teacher shortage, coronavirus funds

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) was in the hot seat Wednesday afternoon as legislators inquired about everything from recruitment efforts to the digital divide during a five-hour hearing. 

DESE Commissioner Margie Vandeven and Division of Financial and Administrative Services Deputy Commissioner Kari Monsees addressed the department’s highest priorities before the House Budget Committee during a marathon hearing on the distribution of the state’s coronavirus relief funds. Vandeven noted educators managed to adjust to many of the challenges during the pandemic, although several issues still needed to be reckoned with.

“Moving forward, we have identified several issues critical to our students: addressing the educator workforce, the digital divide, mental health needs for our students and teachers, and learning acceleration,” Vandeven said. “We look forward to working with you to distribute these relief funds to schools to help these key areas and other needs identified at the local level.”

DESE allocated more than $50 million for workforce grants for recruitment and retention efforts in May with plans to bolster its outreach efforts with additional federal monies, Vandeven said. Of the state’s $1.96 billion allotment through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER III) fund, 90 percent would go to local education agencies (LEAs) under DESE’s application with the federal government. The remaining 10 percent would be used to address the impact of the pandemic through state-level initiatives, including a recruitment campaign and grants geared toward retention and recruitment. 

The state received immediate access to two-thirds of its allocation with the remainder dependent on the approval of its application. Spending authority for the funds would have to be granted by the legislature, either through a supplemental budget or a regular appropriation.

Committee Chair Cody Smith said the conversation on funding would persist in coming years as relief funds continue to come into the state. 

“This is an ongoing discussion we’ll be having for a couple years now,” Smith said. “We’ve got an immense amount of money coming into the state, and we’ll continue to receive more. We’ve got to consider how to best spend it.”

Beyond federal allocations, the commissioners fielded questions on how students could make up for learning loss that occurred over the course of the pandemic. Vandeven noted the department was working with school districts to consider tutoring options as well as accelerated learning initiatives and funding for tutoring services. 

The department is also considering mental health initiatives, including staff training and collaborating with the Department of Mental Health to bring services to teachers and students, Monsees said. He said capacity was as big an issue as funding and the state was working with school districts to consider counselor recruitment initiatives. 

DESE also committed to working with the legislature and other stakeholders to provide students with reliable and affordable internet access. Missouri is investing $400 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to bolster its network, and the House Special Interim Committee on Broadband Development is taking testimony from educators and business owners on best practices to expand access. 

With much of the conversation centered on DESE, Smith said the committee would likely reconvene to hear additional testimony from the Office of Administration around veto session.