Missouri House rejects package of education measures

Tuesday, May 12, 2009 | 8:06 p.m. CDT; updated 10:28 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 20, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri House on Tuesday rejected a wide-ranging education bill that some members considered too bloated and too expensive.

The legislation included an expansion of a college scholarship program backed by Gov. Jay Nixon. It also would have raised minimum pay for public school teachers, banned illegal immigrants from enrolling in state colleges and created a five-star rating system for preschools.

A fiscal analysis prepared by House staff estimated the bill could have cost more than $100 million a year by the 2012 fiscal year.

The House defeated the measure on a 116-43 vote after about five hours of debate Tuesday, including an hour when the Capitol lost power and lawmakers had to shout in a darkened chamber to make their points.

House members could still consider a slimmer version that previously passed the Senate. But Rep. Maynard Wallace, R-Thornfield, said he was "highly disappointed" by the rejection of the House version and set aside the Senate version before lawmakers could vote on it.

A key provision in the defeated House version would expand the A+ Schools Program to give students four years of free college tuition if they begin at a community college.

The A+ Schools Program already provides free community college tuition to graduates of certain high schools who have maintained at least a 2.5 grade point average, achieved 95 percent attendance and performed at least 50 hours of volunteer mentoring.

The bill would open the program to students from any public high school or accredited private school. If they earn an associate's degree through the program, they could receive free tuition at a four-year college for the next two years.

Nixon campaigned on the expansion last year, dubbing the program the Missouri Promise.

Expanding the A+ scholarships to all high schools is expected to cost about $5 million. Adding the third and fourth years of college could cost up to $56 million as more students become eligible for the awards.

Some lawmakers had anticipated approving the bill and sending it to a conference committee of House and Senate negotiators who would hash out the final details.

But others complained the House version was unwieldy.

"A lot of members on this floor just felt that (the House bill) was too bloated, too expensive," said Rep. Tim Jones, R-Eureka.

The House could still pass the Senate's version, which would alter a voter-approved casino ballot measure by changing how new gambling revenue would be distributed to schools.

Last year's ballot initiative removed Missouri's unique gamblers' loss limits and increased taxes on casinos. Revenue raised from the initiative was intended as new money for schools.

But because of the way Missouri distributes education funds, 115 of the state's 524 school districts are projected to get no additional money next year from the ballot measure.

The Senate version would use some of that new money to increase how much the state's education funding formula can grow each year and to give schools a boost for educating gifted students.

Senate leaders have said they want to use about $60 million of the projected $100 million to $130 million in new gambling revenue for those two provisions.

Missouri Gaming Commission Executive Director Gene McNary said two weeks ago that based on revenues through April, the ballot measure would bring in just $30 million this year. He blamed the poor economy and said revenues would eventually meet projections.

The Senate measure also provides $5 million to create a version of merit pay for teachers in St. Louis. Under that plan, teachers could decide to give up tenure and participate in a system in which they could earn up to $15,000 in extra pay based on criteria such as student test scores or parent evaluations.


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