Missouri’s Department of Education and Legislature failed to advance meaningful education reform as neighboring states take major leaps

Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is falling behind the curve of education reform in America, and the state Legislature didn’t help this year, policy experts say.

The Board of Education set 11 legislative priorities for this spring’s legislative session, including teacher pay, social emotional learning, preschool programs and more education funding. However, the Legislature only passed a handful of education bills and left DESE’s priorities largely unaddressed.

And as test scores continue declining even post-pandemic, parents are ready for change. One group of mothers even started their own grassroots organization, “Parents Changing Education,” to accomplish what government agencies aren’t.

“We wanted to get together as a community advocate,” said Ashley Al-Shawish, who cofounded the group. “It really started off as a legislative initiative, and then now we’ve been communicating with schools as well.”

Although the group is only two years old, it has big ambitions.

“We basically want to be the one-stop shop for, ‘My kid’s having trouble and I really want them to succeed in school, but I don’t know what to do,’” explained Al-Shawish.

Additionally, policy experts are frustrated that DESE and the Legislature haven’t kept up with the meaningful education reforms happening in nearby states.

“Over half of the 50 states now have mandatory open enrollment programs that allow families to choose any public school in the state,” Susan Pendergrass, director of education policy at the Show-Me Institute, wrote in a newspaper op-ed. “The number of states that include private schools among the options offered is growing fast. Missouri has neither.”

Pendergrass also addressed the more expansive school choice programs established in neighboring states such as Iowa, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

“School choice is not just happening in the far-flung states of Florida, West Virginia and Arizona,” she wrote. “Our neighbors have figured out what Missouri hasn’t. School assignment by address is antiquated, it isn’t what families want, and it doesn’t work.”

Pendergrass accused the Missouri Legislature of lacking “the courage or determination” needed to bring about meaningful education reform.

Meanwhile, DESE is spending down its remaining COVID-19 federal relief funds to try to combat the learning loss suffered when schools closed during the pandemic. It’s also attempting to address the teacher shortage by using those funds to pay for teacher certification tests.

However, it’s unclear how DESE will address the major problems in public education once pandemic relief funds run dry.

Missouri’s next legislative session will commence in January.

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