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Lawmakers lament failure of bills to address Missouri's teacher shortage

by Annelise Hanshaw | June 7, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.
State Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia, Mo., and House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, Mo., walk into the Missouri Senate president pro tem's office in the midst of closed door negotiations May 4, 2023. Stacks of amendments pile up outside the Senate copy room during the last days of the legislative session. (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent photo)

After a blue ribbon commission spent much of 2022 crafting possible solutions for Missouri's teacher shortage, education advocates entered the legislative session optimistic.

And when Rep. Ed Lewis' legislation raising the minimum teacher salary and creating a scholarship to incentivize teachers to work in hard-staff areas cleared the House in early April with only five "no" votes, the bill seemed likely to make it to the governor.

But the bill never made it to the Senate floor, a victim of unintended consequences and GOP infighting.

"This one was poised to go through right at the end, just before the Senate kind of fell apart for the last two weeks," said Lewis, a Moberly Republican.

The impasse left lawmakers embittered.

"(Lewis' bill) was the best bill we were gonna get," said Rep. Paula Brown, the ranking Democratic member of the House elementary and secondary education committee.

Lewis' legislation mirrored many of the blue ribbon commission's recommendations from its October 2022 report -- released around the time lawmakers were preparing bills for the upcoming session.

The commission first looked at teacher pay, noting that teachers' average annual salary has decreased 6.3 percent since the 2009-10 school year.

A symptom of teachers' dissatisfaction is a declining teacher retention rate. Missouri teachers left their positions at a rate of 11.9 percent during the 2021-22 school year, according to Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data.

The data also shows that by the time a child graduates elementary school, less than half of the school's teachers are likely to be employed in the same setting.

Some districts have opted to address their teacher retention struggles with a switch to a four-day school week. The four-day week is not new to Missouri schools, but it has recently been adopted or considered by the state's larger districts, such as the Independence School District.

Lewis wonders if school districts will continue to find ways to address teacher vacancy after the General Assembly provided little relief.

Missouri lawmakers passed few elementary-and-secondary-education bills this session, with seven non-budget bills affecting school districts. Only one bill originated in the House.

The only bill sent to the governor addressing teacher vacancy came from Sen. Rusty Black, R-Chillicothe. If signed into law, it will allow retired teachers to substitute teach more before losing retirement benefits.

The state budget included funding to raise the minimum teacher salary to $38,000 for one year, a continuation of a grant introduced last year. Lawmakers also nearly doubled the Career Ladder Program, which matches districts' efforts to pay teachers for additional responsibilities, like serving as a club supervisor.

Rep. Brad Pollitt, chair of the House education committee, said one year of teacher salary funding isn't enough assurance for districts. He wants to make changes to the state formula that funds public school districts to make the money permanently available.

"A permanent fix is doing something with the formula," he said, "and we were trying to tinker with that."

Pollitt, a Sedalia Republican, held a foundation-formula workshop in his committee to prepare lawmakers to make changes during the next legislative session.

Some edits were proposed this year, like giving more money to districts with homeless students. The legislation, which was proposed alongside other provisions, did not pass.

The end of the session spells doom for many bills every year, Brown said -- both good and bad.

But Lewis' nearly got across the finish line, thanks to a plan concocted by the Senate's education chairman.

Priorities combined

Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, was working behind the scenes to move Lewis' legislation alongside another House education priority.

Pollitt confirmed that Lewis' legislation was going to be added to his "open enrollment" bill, which narrowly passed the House and would have allowed school districts to open their school boundaries to students living outside of district territory.

Pollitt told the Independent that Lewis's legislation, which was considered less controversial, was going to be added to the open enrollment bill to discourage a potential filibuster. That plan fell apart, however, when the Senate derailed in filibusters in the final two weeks of session.

"I thought they had an agreement with the Democrats to accept this good piece of legislation with money for teachers and attach it to open enrollment ... then the deal kind of fell through at the end," Lewis said. "I think that some senators got their noses out of joint from something ... it wasn't necessarily about education, it was about other things.

"And one way of poking at each other was to filibuster and kill their legislation."

In the final days of the legislative session, Republican Sen. Rick Brattin of Harrisonville held the floor in an attempt to pass legislation that would prohibit a landfill from being developed on the edge of his district. In a compromise, legislation passed requiring an environmental study and a yearlong delay before the landfill could progress.

In the midst of closed-door negotiations over Brattin's filibuster, Pollitt and House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, stopped into the Senate president pro tem's office for a short conversation.

Pollitt told the Independent at that time that his bill was due to come to the floor for debate, but he didn't anticipate any action on it during the filibuster.

A few days later, Republican Sen. Mike Moon of Ash Grove refused to give up the floor until his legislative priorities were considered. The session ended with Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, filibustering an attempted deal on sports betting.

Pollitt briefly sat in the Senate during Moon's filibuster -- a sign his bill was scheduled to come up, he later confirmed.

"We can only control what we do on the House side," he said.

A two-bill rule

As part of a new rule this year, which was put forth by Plocher, all House committees were only allowed two bills on the chamber's debate calendar before spring break, which is the session's midpoint.

Lewis originally filed the various proposals as individual bills. In committee, he had to merge them into one in order to nab one of the education committee's two spots.

He said the rule may have delayed smaller bills. He knew the open-enrollment bill was going to pass committee before spring break, so lower profile bills may have been tabled.

Lewis said those with smaller bills didn't want them referred to committee so early because they knew they couldn't make it to the House floor for a while.

Pollitt doesn't think the rule caused the low success rate of House education bills. He received permission from Plocher to pass three bills out of committee prior to legislative spring break, and he believes the speaker would've given him more leeway if asked.

"The goal was to have the committee vet more bills and put bills together that would go together so we didn't have to do all that on the House floor," Pollitt said. "And the committee was in position to vet those bills probably better than the whole House."

Brown said the rule likely didn't affect Lewis's bill but that it made the committee be "choosey" for the first two and a half months of work.

"In fact, it forced us to make more omnibus bills," she said.

In the final days of session, Moon contested multiple omnibus bills under a state law that constrains legislation to its title and the bill's original intent.

Pollitt said the bills made it to the Senate "in a timely manner." So, the two-bill rule wasn't the holdup.

"It's priorities from (the Senate) side on what they wanted, what they wanted to look at first," he said. "The House's priority was initiative petition because that was the first bill that went out of the House over to the Senate, and that didn't make it either. And I know the Senate had some priorities from their standpoint that didn't make it across the line either."

Lewis said, even if his legislation passed, it would still take time to fix the teacher retention issue.

Plocher did not respond to a request for an interview.

The Missouri Independent,, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.

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