Legislative Column for the Week of Feb. 19, 2015

JEFFERSON CITY — Every week we are getting busier in the Capitol. Winter weather cancelled session on Monday as legislative leaders did not want lawmakers travelling across the state in bad weather. Losing a legislative day on Monday lead to a very busy rest of the week as we worked to make up lost time.

Some legislation I have filed is being heard in committee and working through the legislative process. Senate Bill 221 allows the city of Eureka to annex some small parcels that lie between the city and the edge of St. Louis County – but only if the residents of those areas approve the annexation. Senate Bill 221 was heard in the Jobs, Economic Development, and Local Government committee on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 222, is an effort to protect the investment of infrastructure placed by communication service providers as they look at proposals to expand broadband and high speed internet to rural areas of the state. This measure was heard by the Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment Committee on Tuesday. In short, SB 222 gives internet and communication service providers some protection for wire they place going forward. I filed SB 222 because federal funds are coming available to internet service providers to incentive them to lay high-speed internet lines to rural and underserved areas and the providers would like some protection for the thousands of miles of wire they will likely install. Some local governments are concerned about potential costs and I am working with municipal and local governments to improve this bill while still paving the way for enhanced broadband internet for rural and underserved areas.

Four education bills were filed that would take different approaches at changing the law that lets students in poor-performing schools transfer to better performing ones, at the expense of the sending school. Committee action combined those four filed measures into one piece of legislation, Senate Bill 1, filed by Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg.

Last year, one of the top priorities for the Missouri General Assembly was addressing serious problems some of Missouri’s school districts were facing as a result of students transferring out of unaccredited school districts and into neighboring, accredited school districts. The result of that effort was a bipartisan piece of legislation that required many hours of debate and a lot of compromise. The measure passed, but was vetoed by the governor due to language on private, non-sectarian schools. With that language removed this year, the governor has voiced his willingness to work with legislators on reaching a compromise, and we are hopeful that SB 1 will be passed into law.    

One of the primary differences of this year’s effort is that we have shifted away from the concept of solely accrediting schools by district, to accrediting individual school buildings within a district as well. This means that any high-performing schools will not automatically lose their accreditation simply because they’re part of a larger, unaccredited district. We are hopeful this will allow students to receive their education closer to home, instead of having to travel an hour or more away to a school in another district.

Senate Bill 1 also provides for the expansion of charter schools and virtual schools, so that Missouri’s students will have more educational opportunities. In addition, the measure addresses transient student ratios and student scores; parent notification of unaccredited status and home visits; reading, personalized learning plans and student retention; and online tutoring services through public libraries.

Senate Bill 1 would also create the "School Transfer and Improvement Task Force" within the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The task force would study the means to address failing schools, including a school improvement district; developing options for school transfer finance formulas; best practices for how to design and finance public virtual and blended schools; and best practices and possible pilot projects to assist transient students.

Senate Bill 1 is a very large legislative package and part of ongoing education policy debates. I am undecided on this bill currently as there may be better legislation coming over from the House of Representatives.

Thank you for reading this weekly column. Please contact my office at (573) 751-3678 if you have any questions.