Current education issues and the uncertainty coming with the new federal stimulus package provided 29th District State Senator Jack Goodman with material to discuss with educators at the Purdy R-2 School District recently.
Purdy educators were concerned about what will happen to the A+ program under Governor Jay Nixon's proposal to move its management away from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Goodman urged a "wait and see" response if the Department of the Higher Education takes over.
Under the proposal, Goodman saw room for A+ to grow. The addition of more scholarships to help students achieve a four-year degree would take the program to a career-shaping undertaking naturally managed in the university setting.
Goodman saw no mandate to create a four-day school week. He backed the home option idea, giving local school districts a choice on whether or not to pursue such an approach. Generally, he felt bureaucrats as far removed from local schools as those in Washington, D.C., had "no business" making decisions about education.
Educators wanted to know about the change in public retirement laws that are forcing teachers into paying Social Security instead of staying in a state program. Goodman said the change comes from a federal law over which state legislators have no control. Teachers commonly end up taking summer employment and paying into Social Security. HR 235, a bill addressing the situation, is presently advancing, and Goodman felt it might have some momentum this year.
Asked about a statewide minimum pay schedule for teachers, Goodman said the idea got out of committee last year but has not advanced that far this year. The idea of establishing a statewide textbook and curriculum standard has also not advanced in the current session.
In the regular mechanics of how the state legislature handles money for education, Goodman said the Senate has passed a bill defining how money from the Proposition A gambling fund is supposed to be spent, since language in the statewide ballot was vague on that point. The Senate's plan will put the money into the classroom fund, which will enable more of the money to reach schools.
Contrary to the idea that state funding for education has fallen since the Foundation Formula supporting public schools has not been fully funded, Goodman said state money for education has increased annually for the last five years. This year funding is up by $56 million and was up over $140 million the previous year. Goodman said legislators have "consistently met every target" to boost education spending.
"I'd love to see us spend more on education than welfare," Goodman said. "I'd love to see a time where we don't need the social services we do. We've done some major reforms and cut the growth of spending. There's never been a year when we've spent less on Medicaid. A lot of that is federally driven. There are things we as a society have decided we must do in times of need."
The federal stimulus money headed toward the state will offer a number of opportunities for education not otherwise possible. Goodman said he and others want to spend the money on programs that will not require continuation with state money or supporting programs the state legislators don't like.
"There are taxpayer dollars. If there is a way to responsibly use them in a one-time way that Missourians approve, we'll do that," Goodman said. He preferred one-time spending for capital improvements or a package that could lead to a state tax refund.
Some federal money would go to state agencies while other money would be distributed though grants. Goodman expected there would be grant money available to improve energy efficiency in school buildings. Talk about having "shovel-ready" projects sounded good, but Goodman said those ideas need to get to entities that will handle the funds. He suggested contacting his office about proposals for local spending, and he would try to direct the idea to the right agency.
Very few rules have emerged on how the federal stimulus money should be spent. Federal contacts have indicated it usually takes 36 months to work up rules. Goodman did not expect to have guidelines for spending for at least 18 months.
Goodman commended the teachers for continuing in a field that has changed greatly. Now, he observed, educators have children from the beginning of the day, some even before breakfast, until dinner.
"You are shaping character, and are expected to raise [the students}, unlike your predecessors," Goodman said. "Values and respect were taught by others in the past. There have been changes in laws and attitudes. Not one of you is in it for the money. If so, you are really ill advised."