Budget deficit demands restructuring education departments
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Budget deficit demands restructuring education departments

Date: March 16, 2010
By: Trevor Eischen
State Capitol Bureau
Links: SJR 44, HB 1812, SB 784

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's legislature has yet to take up the governor's proposal from last week to consolidate the state's two education departments.

After slashing $126 million from the current budget, Gov. Jay Nixon said the state needs to combine Missouri's two education departments -- the Higher Education Department and the Elementary and Secondary Education Department as a cost saving measure for future budgets.

"We need to have one Department of Education that prepares students from the day they walk into preschool to the day they walk across the stage with their college diplomas," Nixon said in his speech Thursday.  

Jack Cardetti, a spokesperson for Nixon, said an official plan for consolidating the two departments has not been prepared by the governor or anyone in the legislature, but that both are considering the idea.

"It would provide better quality education while gaining administrative efficiency," Cardetti said.

Cardetti said the idea was still in its infant stage. 

Education Appropriations Chair Mike Thomson, R-Maryville, said he hasn't considered the matter enough because no one has calculated the possible savings. He said the state would save less than $1 million if everyone in the Higher Education Department were fired and their duties were given to the other department.

"There's no way you're going to get a lot of savings," Thomson said, referring only to the department's administrative costs.

Thomson said he also questioned how the departments would be combined. Not enough discussion has occurred, he said, to determine if the departments would merge together, or if one would take the other under its jurisdiction.

Commissioner of Higher Education Robert Stein said he approves of Nixon's idea.

"Unprecedented problems call for creative, innovative solutions," Stein said in a press release. "Centralization of administrative functions -- such as equipment, vehicles and data gathering -- could certainly result in savings."

One possible vehicle for a reorganization of education exists in a Senate leadership proposal that would effectively eliminate the Constitutional creation of all but one of the state's departments.

Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said the measure was meant as a shell simply to provide a vehicle for discussing government reorganization.

Shields announced next Tuesday would be dedicated to a workday for discussing various ideas for reorganizing state government.

Money for higher education

Nixon has also said eliminating state-provided scholarships for private institutions could be a viable option to alleviate the $500 million budget deficit.

Students attending private institutions receive a total of nearly $52 million -- 48.2 percent of higher education scholarships -- from the state for the Access Missouri and Bright Flight programs. Students at public institutions receive $56 million.

Legislation in both the Missouri House and Senate has been proposed to equalize the amount public and private students get from state aid for scholarships -- but nothing has been proposed to completely eliminate state support for scholarships to private schools.

Rep. Gayle Kingery, R-Poplar Bluff, said the he wants to change the program to make the maximum amount equal for public and private students. Private students currently can receive up to $4,600 from the state, while four-year and two-year institutions receive a maximum of $2,150 and $1,000.

Unlike Kingery's bill, which would spread out the funds and not change the amount needed.  Nixon's proposal to eliminate the scholarship would strip $52 million in education appropriations to compensate for the $500 million hole in the budget.

"If you could define freedom in one word, it would be choice," Kingery said. "I would never get in a Missouri student's way to go to a private institution."

Kingery said he does not support Nixon's suggestion to slash the $52 million in state aid. Although Access Missouri uses public money to support private students, Kingery said the program is justifiable because the money goes to students, not institutions, and keeps students in Missouri. He said it's better to keep students in the state at private schools because the money will eventually trickle back into Missouri's economy.

The available funds for Access Missouri will definitely decrease, Kingery said, but he was unsure as to how significant the change would be.