Proposed consolidation of education departments stirs heated debate in Senate

Wednesday, April 21, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — While the Missouri Senate gave first approval to combining Missouri's two education departments, debate stalled on a subsequent proposal outlining the details.

The consolidation is one of many moves made by the Senate in the session to "reboot government." 

"Right now, the Coordinating Board of Higher Education is the greatest oxymoron in state government," President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said.

Before the Senate are two joint resolutions that detail the merger. The legislation, sponsored by Shields, dissolves the current education departments and boards and creates a new one, combining both higher and elementary and secondary education into one department. Senate debate stalled on a companion proposal that outlines the authority the new board would have over education in Missouri.

The intent of the bill, Shields said, was not limited to saving what he predicted to be a "million plus" dollars for the state. The ultimate goal of the consolidation, he said, was to create one education department "responsible for the entire spectrum from pre-K to post-secondary."

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, tried to exempt the University of Missouri System from the jurisdiction of the proposed education board. Many senators spoke against the amendment, which Schaefer eventually withdrew from consideration.

Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said he did not agree with this extension of power.

"I have no problem if we want to exempt the University of Missouri from all the taxpayer money and to exempt them from the appropriations process here," Crowell said. "But I have yet to see a time in my service in the General Assembly where the University of Missouri has not come here and asked for money."

Schaefer said Crowell, as well as Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, misunderstood his amendment and the "constitutional obligation outlined in the Missouri Constitution." He said the language in the state constitution allows the UM System Board of Curators to suggest appropriations directly to the General Assembly without an education board as an intermediary.

The amendment would have provided the UM System with the power to circumvent the new board for funding requests.

The university is the only higher education institution recognized in the Missouri Constitution.

"I know (other institutions) don't like that," Schaefer said. "But you don't get to pick and choose the provisions of the constitution that you think you want to enforce. You got to take in lock, stock and barrel."

After Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, suggested repealing UM as Missouri's priority from the constitution, Schaefer conceded and withdrew his amendment. But Schaefer said even though he couldn't get UM special privileges, he said Missouri has too many higher education institutions.

"If we are low on funds, which we truly are, then what we need to do is look at how much are we giving to these other institutions," Schaefer said.

Sen. Frank Barnitz, D-Lake Spring, said he worries the board could render institutions' regional boards useless and close several of Missouri's universities. He said that would be a problem, because it is important to give students choices.

"At the end of the day, the goal of this thing is not to preserve institutions; the goal is to have a more educated citizenry," Shields said, adding that some states, such as Iowa, only have three higher education institutions that serve the entire state population.

Shields said consolidating universities would be a viable option to state funding over a smaller area.

"We have a state with institutions in every corner offering duplicate programs all over the state, and at the same time, we're not a very high state in terms of educational retainment," Shields said.

But Shields said he doubts the General Assembly could do that without many internal disagreements and huge constituent disapproval.

Debate stalled over a second amendment, proposed by Nodler which would give the new board appropriation power. Other senators said the language was too vague and would give the board too much power.

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