Mo. lawmakers OK bills giving schools more freedom

Thursday, April 8, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The state's public schools would have more freedom to decide how to spend their money, when classes would be in session and how teachers would be paid under bills endorsed Wednesday by the Missouri House and Senate.

Senators gave preliminary approval to a bill that would let schools boards vote to schedule classes year-round and allow teachers to accept merit pay if their districts choose to offer it. The legislation also would let school districts offer two start dates for new kindergarten classes -- one at the beginning of the academic year and one halfway through to give children more time to mature before starting classes.

Meanwhile, the House endorsed its own legislation Wednesday that gives school districts more freedom to control their budgets but rejected an attempt to allow students to enroll in any school district.

Supporters of the Senate measure said year-round schools would cut down how much time must be spent reviewing old material.

Sponsoring Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, said the merit pay option is similar to the system the president has supported for Washington schools.

The House legislation gives budget freedom for school districts that would expire after two years and take effect if the state does not put new money into the state formula for distributing basic aid to schools.

The bill would allow school districts to decide how much money they devote to teacher salaries and professional development -- temporarily excusing them from state requirements that a certain amount of state school money be used for those purposes. Schools also could establish their own rules -- instead of following state standards -- for when they must hire additional administrators.

Both the House and Senate education bills need another vote before they can move to the other chamber.

Supporters of the House bill said the extra budget flexibility is needed to help schools cope with budget problems.

"We're in survival mode right now, and we're going to have to do some things we don't want to do just to give schools a chance to keep their doors open," said Rep. Joe Aull, D-Marshall.

House members on Wednesday also rejected an amendment 122-34 that would have created an open enrollment system for parents to choose any public school district for their children to attend.

Rep. Scott Dieckhaus said open enrollment is needed to improve education in Missouri by forcing schools to compete against one another. He said the state's current rules establish "community education monopolies."

"I am not OK with promoting the status quo. I am not OK with telling parents you have to continue to send your child to that school district because you can't afford to move," said Dieckhaus, R-Washington.

Critics of open enrollment question if the policies do much to improve academic performance, caution that it can make school planning more difficult and warn that it might eventually lead to a voucher system with public money going to private schools.

More than a dozen states have mandatory open enrollment laws, including neighboring Arkansas, Iowa and Nebraska. But the policies vary widely, with some states specifically addressing issues such as transportation and school capacity and others that do not.

Staff for a Missouri education committee that studied open enrollment in 2009 reported that nearly every state with mandatory open enrollment funds a larger portion of education out of state coffers than Missouri. Participation in open enrollment ranged from 0.5 percent of public school students to 18.8 percent.

The House tacked on new concussion rules -- aimed at high school athletes -- that would require players be kept out of practices and games until cleared by a licensed health care worker. All players suspected of suffering a concussion would need to wait at least 24 hours.

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Education is SB815 and HB1543.

On the Net:

Legislature: http://www.moga.mo.gov

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