JEFFERSON CITY - Amid Republican allegations of back-room deal-cutting, Democrats on the Senate Education Committee rounded up enough votes on Wednesday to pass a desegregation bill that one area lawmaker said could mean more transportation money for out-state schools.
"For out-state schools, this means we'll have money for the transportation needs," said Sen. Joe Maxwell, D-Mexico, a committee member. "Every student has a benefit under this plan."
Transportation is one of the five "categorical" items in the bill for which all school districts would receive increased funding. Special education is another example. The increased funding could mean an additional $1.7 million a year to Columbia.
The provision is meant to sweeten the bill in order to garner votes from legislators who don't represent either St. Louis or Kansas City. A sticking point in the bill for some of these members is the $1,000 per pupil in special funding for students in these two urban school districts.
Proponents of these funds say it costs more to educate children in areas with high concentrations of poverty, but some rural lawmakers argue their districts educate poor children, too.
The bill also revamps the St. Louis School Board and includes a provision to allow charter schools in the St. Louis and Kansas City school districts. Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, tried but failed to strip all charter school language from the bill.
"There is a separate bill on this," Jacob said. "It should float on its own. It's clouding the issue."
The bill was passed by the committee on a party-line vote, 7-5. Some of the Republicans on the committee have repeatedly argued that the bill does nothing to rein in administrative costs of the St. Louis and Kansas City school districts, nor does it address equity in education between urban and non-urban schools.
"We didn't hear anything about equity today," said Sen. Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau.
The fate of the desegregation bill was unclear last week after Republicans on the Senate Education Committee were able to defeat the bill because two key Democrats failed to vote for it.
One missing key vote was that of Sen. Harold Caskey, D-Butler. His presence at the committee hearing Wednesday prompted Kinder to say, "There's a rumor that a member absent last week will offer a substitute on the floor, pursuant to a deal that has been cut."
The charge is important because the lawmaker who shepherds the bill through any proposed changes on the Senate floor can greatly influence the final shape of the bill.
Caskey remained silent as the committee's chairman, Sen. Ted House, D-St. Charles, denied any deal, saying he intended to manage the bill on the floor. Caskey managed a desegregation bill on the floor last year, which House voted against.
Missouri has sent more than $3 billion over the last two decades to the St. Louis and Kansas City school districts, after federal courts found unequal education in the two districts. The lawsuit in Kansas City has been settled, and state payments to that district will end in 1999.
The St. Louis lawsuit has not been settled. The state continues to pay about $160 million a year to the district, mainly for magnet schools and for an inter-district transfer program, in which city students are voluntarily bussed to county schools.
The court-appointed mediator for the St. Louis case, William Danforth, has told lawmakers that the $1,000 per pupil funding is essential if the state wants to settle the case and get the courts out of the business of running the schools.
A vocal opponent of the bill, Sen. John Russell, R-Lebanon, said he'll continue to fight against it. Russell has criticized the administrative costs of the St. Louis and Kansas City school districts. He said that the bill, by continuing to send money to the two districts even after the court cases are settled, does nothing to improve education or ensure accountability.