House Democrats push back on education consolidation

Tuesday, May 4, 2010 | 6:48 p.m. CDT; updated 12:10 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 5, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — Opposition emerged to a Senate-passed plan to merge the state's two education departments Tuesday in the House Higher Education Committee.

Democratic representatives on the committee expressed their concerns with the consolidation plan proposed by Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, which would combine the Higher Education and Elementary and Secondary Education departments.

"My concern is the loss of expertise," Rep. Sue Schoemehl, D-St. Louis, said, referring to the elimination of the current board members for a smaller board. "I want to make sure when we do this combination that we don't lose valuable people."

Under the proposal passed by the Senate, the new Education Board would consist of six members, nominated by the governor, who would serve staggered six-year terms.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Department is governed by an eight-member board and the Higher Education Department by a nine-member board.

Shields urged the House to change the Senate-passed plan to provide for nine members based on congressional districts, though Missouri might lose a congressional seat after the 2010 census results are tallied.

Rep. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said she was concerned that the joint resolution doesn't require the six members to have background in education or administration.

Shields said he didn't think the governor would nominate someone without adequate experience, but that the Senate could vote against a nominee deemed ill-suited when the person was up for confirmation.

Rep. Margo McNeil, D-Florissant, said communication between the parts of the education system will always cause problems and to have one board governing all aspects of education would be ineffective compared to two boards that address the needs of each. She also said the merger wouldn't fix Missouri's education problems.

"There's a whole lot more involved to educate children than combining the two boards together," she said.

With less than two weeks left in Missouri's legislative session, time is running out for the House to consider merging the education departments.

Paul Wagner, deputy commissioner for the Higher Education Department, and Michael Nietzel, Gov. Jay Nixon's adviser on higher education, spoke in support of the consolidation.

Wagner said the commissioner and the Coordinating Board for Higher Education support the measure under the condition that the new education board respect higher education's part in the decision-making process.

"We must be cautious about higher education losing visibility under a single board," Wagner said.

Nietzel said public universities in the state waste $53 million in funding remediation classes and programs to help students meet state school standards. He said if high schools better prepared students for higher education, that $53 million could be used for other areas of higher education.

Nietzel said the education departments' governing model reflects a time when higher education wasn't the priority it is now.

"If you think about it historically, the partitioning that we have of elementary and secondary is largely an artifact of an era in which a high school diploma was the educational passport to most good occupations outside of the professions" Nietzel said.

Nixon proposed the merger in a March speech.

Because the joint resolutions require changing the Missouri Constitution, Missouri voters would make the final decision on the November ballot, although the governor could place it on the August primary ballot.

If the constitutional change passed, Missouri wouldn't be the only state with one Education Department.

Idaho, New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania each have a single education department that oversees K-12 and higher education, Nietzel said, and Ohio and Virginia have special commissions to promote better communcation between K-12 and higher education.

Although Shields said the merger would save money, he said the main goal is to create cooperation between K-12 and higher education administrators and educators.

"These people need to be talking together," Shields said. "They need to be on the same page."

The committee is scheduled to continue listening to testimony and vote on the joint resolutions Thursday.

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