Missouri education bill with water lead testing, literacy programs and more set to pass

ByElizabeth J. Bohn

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JEFFERSON CITY — For many Missouri lawmakers in the final week of session, good things are coming in large packages.

With just two days until the Friday evening deadline to deliver legislation to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk, both the House and Senate are moving to get priorities through the finish line. Central among them is a bill loaded with programs and reforms for K-12 education: it requires schools to test and filter their water for lead, puts in place assessment and intervention programs for student literacy and creates substitute teaching certificates, among a litany of other measures.

Senate Bill 681, which was originally sponsored with a focus on literacy programs by Republican Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin of Shelbina, earned praise from the other side of the aisle Tuesday evening. It passed the Senate 29-4 and now awaits a final vote in the House.

“I think as you’ve gone through the various provisions included in the bill, it’s clear that a number of senators have priorities attached to this bill, all aimed at improving student outcomes,” said Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat.

Under the legislation, schools are required to test all water used for drinking, cooking or cleaning, and make the results publicly available. If any water samples display lead levels over 5 parts per billion, they will be filtered or fixed with money from state agencies.

All districts and charter schools will need to have “reading success plans” under the bill, which include both classroom instruction and recommendations for at-home reading with parents or guardians. All students from kindergarten to third grade would be tested at the beginning and end of the school year, as well as newly enrolled students through fifth grade.

Wilson's Creek Intermediate School students during an assembly recognizing the school as National Blue Ribbon and Missouri Gold Star school on Monday, May 9, 2022.

Wilson’s Creek Intermediate School students during an assembly recognizing the school as National Blue Ribbon and Missouri Gold Star school on Monday, May 9, 2022.

The bill was not without criticism, as several members of the Senate Conservative Caucus argued it should have included provisions regarding critical race theory or trans athletes — two issues they’ve consistently tried to legislate on this session.

Other programs and measures included in the bill are:

  • Creation of a four-year substitute teaching certificate, with minimum training or college education requirements and an online state training program.

  • A reduced “open enrollment” system, in which families who own residential or agricultural property in a different school district can send up to four children to that district, so long as they pay taxes to that district.

  • An increase in the amount of money the state pays into the Career Ladder program, which was revived in the budget this year amid a push to pay teachers more. The state would now pay 60% of the program’s cost, up from 40%, while schools pay the other 40% in local dollars. It would also now take teachers two years to qualify for the program instead of five.

  • A pilot program for “recovery high schools” for students recovering from addiction or dependency.

  • A requirement for schools to adopt a “community engagement policy” for how the public communicates with the board.

  • Designate the second week in April as “Holocaust Education Week.”

  • The creation of a grant program for districts to create competency-based curriculum, which is designed for students to learn and master skills at a pace in line with their ability.

Education in Missouri: State plan to increase teacher pay to $38K raises questions for districts

On the governor’s desk: Agricultural tax credits, eminent domain bills

Two more priorities have earned the approval of both chambers and now await Gov. Parson’s signature.

House Bill 1720 provides a litany of tax credits for the agricultural industry — including meat processing, biofuel and wood energy. It also creates a crop loan program for family farms to buy specialty seeds and equipment. The tax credits will expire in 2024.

The bill saw bipartisan passage in the House on Tuesday after a controversial portion that would have benefited prominent developers who invested at least $30 million in rural businesses in the state was removed.

House Bill 2005 will require companies seeking to build electric lines to pay more to farmers and landowners whose land is used for the lines, and provide more of the energy produced to customers in Missouri.

It does not specifically target the Grain Belt Express, an interstate electrical line that would run through Missouri and has been a target for farm groups and Republicans for years. The company creating the electrical line can use eminent domain laws to gain rights to propert
y across a northern belt of the state, with certain guidelines in place.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the House on Tuesday said possible legislation addressing more broad eminent domain policy in the state was needed going forward.

Moving with momentum: Sexual assault bill of rights, hospital visiting restrictions & solar panel regulations

Several other bills have come up for debate throughout the week, inching through negotiations and toward final votes.

Senate Bill 775 makes a number of tweaks to the judicial process, specifically in regard to cases of sexual assault and child trafficking, designed to amp up protections for survivors. Coined the “Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights” and spearheaded by Republican Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder of Sikeston, the bill is in conference between the House and Senate and was approved by the Senate on Tuesday.

It has consistently run into opposition by Sen. Bob Onder, a Lake St. Louis Republican and member of the Conservative Caucus, who questioned Rehder on the Senate floor Tuesday evening about a new provision in the bill regarding child trafficking, arguing that it violated a rule that legislation must be contained to a single subject. Earlier opposition by Onder and other members of the caucus spurred a press conference led by Rehder condemning the group.

Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, a Sikeston Republican, speaks to reporters alongside a bipartisan group of senators in Jefferson City on March 9, 2022. Rehder condemned a group of hardline Republicans who have frequently blocked and attempted to sink legislation.

Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, a Sikeston Republican, speaks to reporters alongside a bipartisan group of senators in Jefferson City on March 9, 2022. Rehder condemned a group of hardline Republicans who have frequently blocked and attempted to sink legislation.

“The women of this body came together and have fought for this legislation and it’s sad that we’ve had to fight for this legislation every single time,” Rehder said. “To think that we have men in this body who constantly bring up issues when it comes to protecting our women and the policies that we are trying to do.”

Missouri state government: Senators condemn ‘self-serving’ GOP members after sexual assault bill blocked

House Bill 2116 and other packaged bills, which curb the ability for hospitals to limit visitors to patients in response to pandemic-era restrictions, have seen some alterations during debate in the Senate.

The legislation now requires hospitals to allow a patient to have two “compassionate care visitors,” which can include family members, to have in-person contact with the person during visiting hours. They could also designate an “essential caregiver” during states of emergency such as COVID-19 to maintain in-person contact.

Sen. Bill White, a Joplin Republican, said the changes, which were “supported by health care entities” and less likely to endanger Missouri’s standing with federal regulations while still maintaining a focus on “a basic element of the human condition.”

“We’re trying to talk about these people as more than just a visitor, that they are actually providing a useful health care function,” White said. “They are part of a care team.”

The bill awaits a vote in the House.

Battlefield Republican Sen. Eric Burlison’s Senate Bill 820 barring homeowners’ associations from forbidding rooftop solar panels also continues to make progress, passing the Senate and awaiting a final vote in the House.

Renewed pushes but questionable fate: Redistricting, abortion & vaccines

Lawmakers’ last-ditch effort to draw new congressional districts continues apace, with a map passing the House and getting a Senate committee hearing Wednesday afternoon. But the Conservative Caucus has indicated that debate on the subject on the Senate floor could effectively be the last thing the chamber tackles.

“The session is over when the maps come up,” Onder said on the floor Tuesday.

Another consistently controversial subject, COVID-19 vaccinations, was inserted into a bill focused on financial statements for political entities. Rep. Chris Sander, a Republican from Lone Jack, proposed an amendment banning taxpayer dollars from going to events requiring or asking about vaccination or testing for the virus. Similar language inserted into the state budget by the House was later stripped out by the Senate. Its addition to Senate Bill 724 could complicate its future. It will now likely go to negotiations between the two chambers.

Republicans are also advancing a resolution through the Senate with the intent to activate Missouri’s abortion “trigger ban” if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court. Senate Concurrent Resolution 37, sponsored by Sen. Justin Brown of Rolla, is one of three ways that the state’s abortion ban can go into effect if the high court repeals Roe this summer. The other two are an executive order from the governor or an opinion issued by the attorney general; both are likely to also issue those.

The resolution was passed out of committee Tuesday morning and awaits Senate debate.

Effectively dead: Statewide open enrollment, extended Medicaid for post-pregnancy, ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights’

Several measures with momentum at different times throughout session have become likely casualties in the final days.

Originally included in the large education bill package was a provision allowing students to attend school districts outside of the one they reside in. But that was stripped from the package during negotiations between the House and Senate, with a compromise for a more limited version.

Extended Medicaid coverage for mothers for a year after pregnancy was also stripped out of a bill with expected Senate opposition. Originally included in Senate Bill 690 from Rehder, the Sikeston Republican, the “Show-Me Healthy Babies” program would have significantly extended how long mothers are covered by the low-income health care program after birth, up from the current 60 days.

But Rep. Phil Christofanelli, a St. Peters Republican, told lawmakers on the House floor Tuesday that the policy “would have had trouble across the building,” likely referring to the Senate Conservative Caucus, and was thus removed alongside a behavioral crisis grant program and other measures.

Finally, a ballot measure that would have included a parent’s right to direct their child’s education in the state constitution failed in the House. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle warned it could have led to significant restrictions on teachers and schools.

House Joint Resolution 110 also would have put constitutional restrictions on how race, racism and equity are taught.

The legislative session will end Friday at 6 p.m.

Galen Bacharier covers Missouri politics & government for the News-Leader. Contact him at [email protected], (573) 219-7440 or on Twitter @galenbacharier.

This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Missouri schools bill will require lead testing, literacy programs


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