FILE - classroom scene

(The Center Square) – Out of dozens of lines showing millions of dollars for Missouri’s supplemental budget, one sticks out in House Bill 3014.

There are 25 lines, each representing a department or office in Missouri government, requesting a 5.5% cost of living adjustment for all state employees. Gov. Mike Parson announced the increases and a base pay of $15 per hour in December.

But the largest line – $2.1 billion – asks the legislature to approve federal COVID funds for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). Margie Vandeven, DESE commissioner, said approving the funding as soon as possible will provide school districts throughout the state with financial resources to address four main areas – learning acceleration after test scores showed learning loss during the pandemic, providing additional mental health services, addressing poor access to broadband resources, and improving teacher recruitment and retention.

“I plead with you to get additional funds to go forward,” Vandeven told the House Budget Committee on Wednesday. “We've been working on this for a couple of years now. We have a very detailed plan and I am concerned that if we wait until the regular (budget) cycle, we will be behind. You're seeing many states launching big initiatives. We can't do that right now.”

DESE submitted a 62-page plan to the U.S. Department of Education in April 2021 for funds from the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

State Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, D-Kansas City, a former high school teacher and a member of the House elementary and secondary education committee, said school districts she represents are eager to start programs to address learning loss once funding is approved.

“Many have been holding their breath to finally get this money and to start making decisions,” Nurrenbern said. “They can’t plan when they don’t know what they have. Our schools and teachers are working around the clock to find creative solutions to address learning acceleration. But they need to know if they have resources for after-school programs or extending the school year or school day.”

State Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, was critical of the overall approach of DESE’s plan to spend the federal money.

“For a parent looking at this, they're like, ‘Where's my child in this? You're spending money on research and analysis, on data systems and tracking numbers more effectively,’” Richey said. “We all understand those are realities…

“What is being targeted can come across like it's tone deaf. When we have parents who are saying my child who started kindergarten two years ago has already lost so much opportunity… my child, who was a fifth grader two years ago… my child who was a freshman two years ago, has lost content. I want to be able to hire tutors. I want to be able to go out and participate in other types of tutoring programs. Where's the money to reimburse parents to be able to help with that?”

Vandeven said that tutoring is high on the list of programs anticipated for funding at the local level. She also said the funding the plan will address critical statewide issues.

“Every single thing we’re putting into this plan is about helping those students,” she responded to Richey.

Staff Reporter

Joe Mueller covers Missouri for The Center Square. After seven years of reporting for daily newspapers in Illinois and Missouri, he spent the next 30 years in public relations serving non-profit organizations and as a strategic communications consultant.