Government review panel hears from education agencies

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Members of a special commission working to overhaul Missouri government discussed on Monday whether major changes in the structure of the state's two education departments might make sense.

The possibilities include merging the separate Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Department of Higher Education or establishing a "super board" of higher education that would have real authority over Missouri's public colleges and universities.

The Government Review Commission was established by Gov. Matt Blunt to spearhead the first major reorganization of state agencies in three decades. It is in the early stages of that process.

The State Board of Education, whose members are gubernatorial appointees, runs DESE and appoints the agency's director, the commissioner of education. Although the governor has significant influence over DESE through the budget process, the department isn't directly under his control.

With the board and DESE officials somewhat insulated from politics, education commissioner Dr. Kent King said the system has allowed for long-term stability in the department and consistency in state education policies. King noted that, for better or worse, he is just the fourth person to hold his post since it was created in 1945.

"I think our model provides some consistency in direction that hasn't happened in a lot of places," King said.

When asked about the possibility of combining the two education departments, King said that in some states with such a system the unification is in name only as K-12 and higher education end up split into separate divisions.

DESE's primary function is to set general education policies and provide funding for Missouri's 524 local school districts. Review commission co-chairman Stephen Bradford of Cape Girardeau asked if the state's K-12 education system might be more efficient if some districts were consolidated.

Geography lesson

In instances where there are a number of small districts clustered together in a small area, King said consolidation would be a good idea. However, he said many districts are small by necessity in that there isn't another district nearby with which they could merge.

"Geography certainly plays a role," King said. "We have some districts that are very, very small, but they don't really have a choice. You can't put kids on buses for hours and hours."

The Department of Higher Education has a governing structure similar to DESE. It is overseen by the appointed Coordinating Board of Higher Education, which hires the agency's leader.

Although CBHE in theory oversees Missouri's public universities, in practice the real power is vested with each school's local governing board.

"I'm puzzled how the coordinating board can exercise its authority in a meaningful way," said review commissioner Charles McClain of Columbia.

Dr. Gregory Fitch, the higher education commissioner, said the regionalism of Missouri's higher education system is both its greatest strength and its biggest failing. It gives each school the flexibility to best serve regional needs, but leads them to sometimes work at cross purposes without statewide coordination. Fitch noted that university officials often take parochial concerns directly to the legislature instead of CBHE.

"If people are in a position to make end-runs around the coordinating board and are rewarded for their efforts, what good is your coordinating board?" Fitch asked.

However, he said creating a "super board" with power over all institutions would restrict the positive benefits of regionalism.

The review commission also heard presentations from the departments of social services, mental health and health and senior services.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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