Proposal to combine state education departments still in early stages

Tuesday, March 16, 2010 | 11:37 p.m. CDT; updated 9:38 a.m. CDT, Monday, April 26, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri's General Assembly has yet to take up the governor's proposal to consolidate the state's two education departments.

After slashing $126 million from the budget last week, Gov. Jay Nixon said the state needs to combine Missouri's two education departments — the Higher Education Department and the Elementary and Secondary Education Department — as a cost-saving measure for future budgets.

"We need to have one department of education that prepares students from the day they walk into preschool to the day they walk across the stage with their college diplomas," Nixon said in a speech Thursday.

Jack Cardetti, a spokesman for Nixon, said neither the governor nor lawmakers have prepared a plan to consolidate the two departments, but they're considering the idea.

"It would provide better quality education while gaining administrative efficiency," Cardetti said.

He said the idea is still in its infant stage.

Education Appropriations Chairman Mike Thomson, R-Maryville, said the state would save less than $1 million if everyone in the Higher Education Department were fired and their duties were given to the other department.

"There's no way you're going to get a lot of savings," Thomson said, referring only to the department's administrative costs.

He also said there hasn't been enough discussion about how the departments would be combined.

Robert Stein, Commissioner of Higher Education, said he approves of Nixon's idea.

"Unprecedented problems call for creative, innovative solutions," Stein said in a press release.

One possible vehicle for a reorganization of education exists in a Senate proposal that would eliminate the Constitutional creation of all but one of the state's departments.

Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said the measure was meant to provide a vehicle for discussing government reorganization.

Shields said Tuesday will be dedicated to discussing ideas for reorganizing state government.

Money for higher education

Nixon has also said eliminating state-provided scholarships for private institutions could be a viable option to alleviate the $500 million budget deficit.

Students attending private institutions receive nearly $52 million — almost half of higher education scholarships — from the state for the Access Missouri and Bright Flight programs.

Legislation in both the Missouri House and Senate has been proposed to equalize the amount public and private students get from state aid for scholarships, but none of the bills would eliminate state support for scholarships to private schools.

Gayle Kingery, House Higher Education Committee chairman, wants to change the program to make the maximum amount equal for public and private students.

Unlike Kingery's bill, which would spread out the funds and not change the amount needed, Nixon wants to strip $52 million in education money.

"If you could define freedom in one word, it would be 'choice,'" said Kingery, R-Poplar Bluff. "I would never get in a Missouri student's way to go to a private institution."

Kingery does not support Nixon's suggestion. Although Access Missouri uses public money to support private students, Kingery said the program is justifiable because the money goes to students, not institutions, and keeps students in Missouri. He said it's better to keep students in the state at private schools because the money will eventually trickle back into Missouri's economy.

The available funds for Access Missouri will definitely decrease, Kingery said, but he was unsure as to how significant the change would be.

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