Mo. Lawmakers OK Sweeping K-12 Reform Package

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Educators across Missouri are alternately booing and cheering a new education package that seeks to limit social promotion and features a smorgasbord of initiatives, including early-childhood programs and incentives for new teachers.

Gov. Mel Carnahan

Gov. Mel Carnahan, a Democrat, signed the bill into law in July, two months after lawmakers approved it.

Legislators actually saved the sweeping measure for last: The House passed the bipartisan bill 149-1 on the last day of the session, May 14, following a flurry of last-minute amendments. A few days earlier, the Senate passed the bill, 32-2.

The law's new provisions are set to go into effect next summer, provided the legislature appropriates enough money in next year's session to underwrite them. Legislators estimate it will cost $23.4 million to implement the law.

Already, the law is being praised as a significant achievement.

The legislation "includes significant provisions to help raise academic expectations for Missouri students and encourage school districts to set stricter standards for promoting students from one grade to the next," Gov. Carnahan said in a statement after the July 13 bill-signing.

Picking up on a popular theme in states across the country, the new law requires districts to retain students in their current grades if they are reading one grade below their current grade. The aim is to end the practice of social promotion of academically unready students. The law does not apply to special education students.

"You can't just keep pushing these kids through," Sen. Steve E. Ehlmann, the Republican floor leader who introduced the amendment, said in an interview. "You can't graduate kids who don't know how to read."

But others contend that the law usurps local control.

Decisions on student promotions should be made on an individual basis by teachers and administrators who know the students and can offer the remedial help they need to advance, said Chris Straub, the associate executive director of the Missouri Association of School Administrators.

By holding students back, "you're sending the message, 'Hey, you're stupid,' " Mr. Straub said. The result may be that students drop out of school altogether, he added.

'Ready To Read'

But three other provisions within the broad reform law aim to ensure that student failure never becomes an issue. All three depend on anticipated funding in next year's appropriations process.

For one, lawmakers authorized a summer enrichment program for some 6,700 prekindergartners, about 10 percent of the children expected to enroll in the state's kindergarten classes in the fall of 2000. As an incentive, districts that offer the program will receive double the per-pupil funding allocation for each of the youngsters they enroll in the new effort.

Separately, the "Ready To Read" program will give districts additional funding if they agree to provide remedial reading help for children in grades K-3 outside regular school hours. The increased funding will be based on the number of pupils who attend.

The state also plans to provide four-year matching grants to each district and school that provides remedial education in grades K-3. The money must be spent on reading assessments, teacher and administrator training, or other efforts to help students improve their reading skills.

"If you don't catch [students] by 3rd grade, you've lost them," said Rep. Rodger L. Fitzwater, a Democratic co-sponsor of the reform law.

"If they can't read, there are not a lot of things they're able to do," he said.

Teacher Incentives

The legislation also provides incentives to attract and retain teachers.

An annual study conducted by Southwest Missouri State University showed that the demand for teachers in Missouri during the 1998-99 school year was the highest it had been in 13 years. Shortages remain in special education, counseling, and mathematics and science teaching, as well as in the principal ranks.

Despite a record number of hires during 1998--more than 6,800--the state started this past school year with 327 teaching and principal vacancies. Missouri also hired 604 uncertified teachers in the past year and filled 133 positions with substitutes.

Starting in 2000, the state will forgive loans taken out by undergraduate and graduate students who go on to teach in an area that is considered critical by the state board of education.

The state will forgive up to $8,000 for two years of undergraduate work and up to an additional $4,000 to students whose teaching programs require a fifth year of instruction to obtain a teaching certificate.

The state also will forgive up to $8,000 for students in graduate school. An additional $8,000 is forgivable for every year a student opts to work in an urban or rural school district in Missouri.

Lawmakers project that between 2,500 and 3,000 students will be eligible for the program each year.

The legislation also creates the Missouri Teacher Corps, an effort to recruit 50 recent college graduates a year who majored in English, foreign language, mathematics, science, social studies, or history to teach in designated schools for two years. Details on recruitment strategies have yet to be worked out.

The initiatives "are probably not enough" to solve the entire teacher-shortage problem in Missouri, "but they are a step in the right direction," said Mr. Straub of the school administrators' association.

Vol. 18, Issue 43, Pages 22, 28

Published in Print: August 4, 1999, as Mo. Lawmakers OK Sweeping K-12 Reform Package
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