Leading education Sen. Gary Nodler speaks about this year's issues
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Leading education Sen. Gary Nodler speaks about this year's issues

Date: April 4, 2007
By: Tina Marie Macias
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Snacking in the cloak room between Senate votes, eating a cup of soup during a committee meeting and grabbing a McDonald's McMuffin before 8 a.m. are the staples of Sen. Gary Nodler's, R-Joplin, diet when the General Assembly is in session.

The 56-year-old author of what has been called Missouri's most important piece of education legislation has worked in politics since he was a senior at Missouri Southern State University, but it took three groups in his district to convince him to run for state Senate. He ran and won in 2002.

Though he is now the most powerful state senator when it comes to education, Nodler doesn't have an extensive background in education policy. In fact, he spent the majority of his life building up a cable company.

But now Nodler is the leading proponent for the governor's plan to sell of $335 million of the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority's assets to fund capital projects. And as a powerful state Senator -- he is the vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the chairman of the Senate Education Committee -- he has created a bill that includes the plan and easily pushed the plan onto the Senate floor.

And with Sen. Chuck Gross, R-St. Charles, the current chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee resigning from the Senate at the end of the session to become Director of Administration for St. Charles government, Nodler might become the new appropriations chairman -- one of the most important positions in the Senate.

In Jan. 2003, as a freshman senator, Nodler authored a bill that changed Missouri Southern College into a university and created the authority for Missouri colleges and universities to enter into cooperative advanced degrees.

"When Missouri Southern was made into a university there was a concern about the cost of adding graduate programs, so rather than having state funds invested in duplicating graduate programs at Joplin, our thought was to permit partnerships between Missouri Southern and other institutions like the University of Missouri or Missouri State so that they could jointly develop graduate education in Joplin," Nodler said.

His bill was passed with in the first month of that session, which he said was incredibly exciting for a freshman senator.

"That was my number one legislative priority for the year and it passed the Senate 30 days after I took office," Nodler said. "That was pretty quick, pretty exciting."

Soon after that, then-Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, appointed him to the Commission for the Future of Higher Education. Nodler and other members discussed where higher education was and how it needed to change to prepare for the future.

"We issued a report for the need of collaboration and the need of a better system of articulation," he said. "Some of the things that came out of the commission are in SB 389 (the wide-spanning higher education bill that includes the MOHELA plan)."

Nodler said one of the main things that he learned from that commission is that higher education needs more structure, which is why his bill gives significantly more power to the Higher Education Coordinating Board.

"That lack of a coherent voice was one of the things that was clear, specifically the need for institutions to collaborate and cooperate," Nodler said.

And once he finished serving on that commission, he became the chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

"When Mike Gibbons became President Pro Tem, he asked me if I would serve as chairman of the education committee and I accepted the appointment," Nodler said. "I actually hadn't been a member of the education committee."

Now his largest issue of the session is his ominous higher education bill. It went through some changes in the education committee and receive protest from democrats, but still easily made it through committee and onto the Senate floor. Only now has it hit a road bump -- every time the bill is brought up, a vote is blocked by democrats. The bill is now in limbo and it is unclear when the bill will be brought up again.

"While people may have reservations about one element or another element within the legislation, I believe the higher education community believes that the overall impact of the legislation is a very positive one and the bill is very important to the future of higher education," Nodler said.

He said one of the main issues that higher education institutions have not been happy with is the bill's idea to punish institutions for raising their tuition above the Consumer Price Index.

"We've had probably a half a dozen different versions of how to achieve that objective," Nodler said. "And that's a part of the bill that the institutions struggle with, for a variety of reasons, but I think they all understand and agree that communicating assurance to the students and families that there is going to be some restraint on tuition increases is an important message."

He said it's not surprising that tuition has been steadily rising of the past few years, but added that the legislature and institutions are both to blame for rising tuition.

"The fact that the legislature has reduced commitments of state funds has put pressure on institutions to cover those costs other ways, and that puts pressure on institutions to raise tuition," he said.

Nodler said institutions are partially to blame because some critics say that professors are paid too much for the little teaching the do and "question if those levels are appropriate."

"We have legislators who see very, very high salaries for teachers with very, very low teaching schedules," he said.

Even with this he still said that he believes that there is a responsibility on all sides.

"Some of the responsibility of increased tuition rests with us and the legislature for not having fully funded higher education," he said. "Some of it rests with institutions that have not gained maximum efficiency from their resources, including the use of faculty time and the return on investments in faculty salary."

Nodler said by using accountability standards that will be developed by the coordinating board and the higher institutions.

He added that he meets with lobbyist daily and works often with University of Missouri System President Elson Floyd, who he says will be difficult to replace because of his extensive background in politics.

"He has often shown a perspective that incorporates the statewide vision and has contributed more than just the perspective of the University of Missouri System, but has clearly showed an understanding of the concept of a statewide higher education system," Nodler said. "I think he's a good leader and someone I've enjoyed working with -- he's somebody who gets it."

Scott Charton, spokesman for the UM System, said Floyd frequently spoke to Nodler about education issues.

"Not only in Jefferson City, but when Dr. Floyd has visited Joplin as part of his statewide town," Charton said. "They have a candid relationship and Dr. Floyd appreciates that Sen. Nodler has always kept an open door for the University of Missouri."

Recognizing that education is not naturally segmented to K-12 and higher education is the most important thing in education. He said bridging the gap between high school and higher education should be a priority.

"I think we need to evolve to a point where we realize education is a lifelong thing," he said."We need to get an educational system that allows education to interact seamlessly, so that they both are working together rather than being in competition with each other for resources."

Utilizing technology is one way that Nodler said the two educational structures can bond together.

"I don't think we'll ever not have a live teacher at a chalkboard, but education needs to be more dynamic and adapt to changes in the world," he said, adding that in some universities that are too slow to make changes.

Nodler retired from the cable business in 2000 and said he is unsure of what he will do when his term-limits out in three years.

"We'll see what my state of health and interest is at that point in time," he said. "There are several options, but I don't know how I'll feel in three years. But I'm pretty well focused on what I'm doing here now."