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State Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin knew coming into her position last year as the chair of the Missouri Senate Education Committee that she would have minds to change.

She has been outspoken in her desire for education reform, and amid the pandemic has made clear her frustration with public schools who "have a monopoly on public education."

Her ascension to such a prominent position in the Senate inspired angst in some circles, a feeling that wasn't soothed with comments such as suggesting in a recent column that struggling schools in urban districts tended to create one career path for students — "criminal activity."

However, O'Laughlin said that during her time as chair she's worked hard to build bridges and find consensus. While she has experience working in a private Christian school and serving on her school board, O'Laughlin said she also knows she's not an education expert.

"So I want to work with you, not against you," O'Laughlin recounted telling public school advocates. "And I think in the beginning, people were told, 'You know, she's going to be hard to work with because she's just got one view.' And that's really not true."

It's those presumptions O'Laughlin is trying to cut through by gathering her fellow members of the education committee in more informal settings. They tried it for the first time March 29, when the bipartisan group gathered over lunch in the hopes of having candid discussions about where each lawmaker stands.

"The hope is that we don't talk specifically about bills," said Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, "but that we try to find that common ground and then eventually work toward coming up with legislation or work products that we can all sign our name to and feel this is in the interest of all students."

O'Laughlin said the working group is an extension of her visits to schools amid the pandemic and meetings this year with school superintendents over their concerns. It may be too far into the current legislative session for the group to have a major impact on bills currently moving through the process, but lawmakers hope it will lay the foundation for discussions to come.

Legislative leaders have tried to advance school choice measures for the last decade, but resistance has remained steadfast, keeping major bills like expanding charter schools statewide from becoming law. School choice advocates had said this year was different, with the pandemic opening families' eyes and giving the movement the momentum it needed.

However, it remains to be seen if that's the case, with the future of the sweeping school-choice package, Senate Bill 55, uncertain. As it waits on the sidelines, other bills, like House Bill 349, which would establish an education savings accounts program, are moving forward.

With the end of session six weeks away, time is ticking.

"Every day is a new day. So everyday there are more conversations going on," O'Laughlin said. "And who knows, maybe we'll come up with the right formula."

Early momentum

School choice bills were the first ones heard in the House and Senate education committees this session, and they appeared to be on a fast track.

"It felt different in the way things started so quickly, with so much stuff being put into one thing all at once," said Otto Fajen, the legislative director for the Missouri National Education Association. "That's not something that we've seen really before."

But one of the largest packages has languished.

After lawmakers reached an impasse following nearly 12 hours of debate in late February, Senate Bill 55 was revived days later with a vote to open the bill back up for further amendments.

"It may be because it was such a big package, that there was something there for many senators not to like," Fajen said, later adding: "If that is enough of a problem for half the Senate, then you can't get a bill passed."

It's been a month since that vote, and the bill has yet to resurface on the Senate floor. Discussions are ongoing, lawmakers said.

"When or if it will come up, I don't know. I'm not the floor leader," O'Laughlin said. "It's undergone several changes in response to input from other senators."

Meanwhile, in recent weeks two bills eked out of the House, both with the bare minimum of 82 votes required to pass — exemplifying the hill school choice measures have to climb in the Legislature.

House Bill 543, sponsored by Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia, would allow public school students to transfer to another district where their family owns property and pays school taxes on.

The House also approved House Bill 349, sponsored by Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters, which would establish scholarship accounts that can be used toward things like private school tuition. Last week, that bill passed out of the Senate Education Committee.

In a news conference Tuesday, Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis and Christofanelli stood with parents to rally around Senate Bill 95, which would allow parents to enroll their students in Missouri's virtual education program without a district's approval. The bill was passed out of committee early last month and awaits initial approval.

"We still have almost half of the session left to go. And as everyone who follows this building knows, everything gets passed in the last two weeks," Onder said about the momentum of school choice legislation. "So I'm still optimistic."

School-choice advocates are hopeful a sweeping package will still pass, but it remains to be seen if a middle ground can be reached. Peter Franzen, the associate executive director of the Children's Education Alliance of Missouri, said as an advocacy organization, part of the work "is keeping your nose to the grindstone" and continuing to mobilize parents and invite lawmakers to visit charter schools.

"It doesn't always feel like this is a battle of truths," he said. "It really just seems like it's an ideological battle sometimes."

Fajen said the Missouri NEA has been able to work with lawmakers on bills, like O'Laughlin's Senate Bill 54 on reading comprehension. The bill passed unanimously out of committee last week.

"We have a new record," O'Laughlin said during the hearing, later adding: "For those of you that don't know, we never all vote the same way."

However, when it comes to issues like expanding charter schools and education savings accounts — which are some lawmakers' must-haves — compromise is hard to come by.

"If the fundamental approach is off-task, I don't know that we're that eager to fine tune the details," Fajen said.

Asked if she'd do anything differently this session, O'Laughlin joked that she wouldn't get sick. A bout of pneumonia kept O'Laughlin away from the Capitol for weeks, stalling momentum on Senate Bill 55.

"And while I did try to keep caught up, for the first three weeks it was very hard. So I'm not sure if things would have progressed the way they have this year, if I hadn't been gone for a month," O'Laughlin said. "But I'm not saying that my being here every day would have made things smoother. Or would we have come up with a better solution? I don't know."

However, what may be a path forward for future compromise is the committee's new education working group. It was met with cautious optimism from advocates and lawmakers on both sides of the debate.

"Maybe emerging from the flames of the earlier approach, is maybe one that's more conversational, less confrontational," Fajen said of the new working group.

Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said last week that its creation imbued her with a new sense of hope for what can be.

"We have always thought that we were at odds with each other. We've always retreated to our corners based on the bills," she said. "I think it's opened a bit of a new respect for each other in terms of we all really want positive outcomes."

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