JEFFERSON CITY - More than $100 million in cuts to the state's public schools -- cuts that could mean teacher layoffs, larger class sizes and delayed construction projects -- were approved Thursday as a part of a budget package that will go to the governor's desk.
The House passed the 5 percent cut in elementary and secondary education in a near straight party-line vote. But in the Senate, a few Democrats broke ranks and supported the Republican-backed plan.
The state's colleges and universities will also lose $54 million from their budgets next year under the higher education budget approved by both chambers. The cuts take funding back to the level the schools received in 1997.
House Education Appropriations Chairman Kathlyn Fares, R-St. Louis County, said it was necessary to reduce education funding in order to keep the whole budget in balance.
"My heart bleeds for that (cutting education), but we need to live within our means," Fares said. "If education doesn't take its fair share of cuts, we would be picking the pockets of people even more vulnerable than our children."
Democratic opponents claimed the Republican-backed plan violated their campaign promise to keep education as a No. 1 priority.
"We are going in the wrong direction for our children," said Columbia Democrat Chuck Graham. "We aren't trying hard enough in the last week and a half of this session to find a way to fully fund education."
The legislature cut funding to the safe schools program, the A+ community college incentive program and Missouri Assessment Program testing in certain subjects from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education budget.
"I believe our educators have the intellectual firepower to produce a better product on less resources," said Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County.
Republican supporters acknowledged that the cuts would have moderate impacts on education but said it was the best they could do.
"Teachers may not get raises and classroom size might get a little bigger, but education is not going to fall off the vine," said Rep. Maynard Wallace, R-Thornfield, who was a school superintendent before running for the House. "Education will survive."
Columbia public schools will be one of the districts taking the deepest cut at $5 million.
The cuts, however, are not standard across the state. Ladue schools, one of the richest districts in the state, are getting virtually the same amount of money as last year.
"Nothing in this bill is equitable," said Rep. Rachel Bringer, D-Palmyra. "We don't want our rural schools to have merely an adequate education; we want a great and fair education."
While lawmakers wrestled with the budget, more than 70 school children skipped class to be part of a protest in support of the governor's budget recommendations that would have given more money to K-12 education.
Wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Missourians united for a fair budget solution," the students were paraded around the Capitol by an education advocacy group.
"Our mothers didn't raise any of us to balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable people of the state," said John Cross, member of the Coalition to Protect Education and Health Care.
But some of the children said they did not understand the tax issues before the legislature and thought that their visit was just part of a field trip.
The majority of the higher education cuts come from direct reductions to state institutions and scholarships.
UM will be cut $28 million - about 6.8 percent - to below $400 million. Columbia representatives have predicted that will translate into an 18 percent tuition hike for students to cover the difference.
"When universities have to raise tuition in order to make up for these cuts, it is basically a tax on the middle class because those are the children that go to our state schools," said Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia and a member of the Education Appropriations Committee. "We are closing the door to college for working families."
The compromise on lower education added $23 million back into the Senate spending plan that the governor had promised to veto because he thought it made too-drastic cuts to education and health care.
But the Democratic Gov. Bob Holden seemed to back down from that position Thursday as he watched the House debate.
"I don't know what it (the budget) will look like when it comes to my desk," Holden said. "We are still looking at the details to see that they aren't cutting out the state's future."
The General Assembly continued debate late Thursday night in an attempt to meet the budget deadline of 6 p.m. today.