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[In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of MNEA – Michael Bersin]

This afternoon Missouri National Education Association (MNEA) Legislative Director Otto Fajen and Senator David Pearce (R-31), chair of the Education Committee, spoke on the campus of the University of Central Missouri (UCM) about education issues in the current legislative session and took questions from the audience at an event sponsored by the UCM MNEA unit.

After that session we had the opportunity to speak with Otto Fajen:

Show Me Progress: Could you tell me in, in overall terms how this legislative session is going in Jefferson City, um, for K through twelve and for higher education? In general terms.

Otto Fajen, Legislative Director, MNEA: I’ll do the best I can. Uh, I think the first thing I would say is there’s still a lot of uncertainty about this session. Um, we, after the election, were very, in the, in the Senate leadership struggles, we were concerned that it was showing a real policy shift in the Senate. Um, and with the senate Democratic Caucus being so small we, we weren’t sure whether the Senate would still kind of be that voice of reason that it has typically been in the past on K twelve and higher education policy. But with the appointment of Senator David Pearce [R] to continue to be education chair, uh, where many of us were concerned that it was gonna be a far right person like Senator Jane Cunningham [R]. That kind of sent a signal that maybe the Senate wasn’t gonna kind of fall off the edge of the earth. And so we haven’t really seen that huge race of, uh, profoundly disturbing policy ideas through the Senate yet. And, in fact, the education committee doesn’t seem to be moving very quickly on much of anything. And so the session has been slower perhaps than we might have thought from what we heard on the first day of session. Um, obviously the House leadership has been more antagonistic toward K twelve education and, uh, kind of angry in their tone about, uh, firing bad teachers. But again, the action on the ground in the committee on that hasn’t really taken place. And we’re trying to be very proactive in saying, you know, we are not that happy with the status quo. We’ve got ideas on how to do something that would actually work rather than just throw up your hands and try to blame teachers, uh, for problems that go far beyond what goes on directly in schools…

MNEA Legislative Director Otto Fajen (left) and Senator David Pearce (R-31)(right), chair of the Education Committee,

taking questions at an MNEA event on the campus of the University of Central Missouri.

Show Me Progress: Uh, from the, from the budget standpoint, uh, the, the hundred eighty-nine million dollars in, um, federal stimulus money for education, uh, how does that affect the, the upcoming state budget?

Otto Fajen: Well, it’s, it, it’s already had a profound effect because it had a profound effect on what the governor and the state budget office and State Budget Director Linda Luebbering could do, what they could try to propose to do.  Um, it helped them, for instance, in K twelve, not utterly eliminate the pupil transportation categorical. Um, and their proposal was to actually, based upon the federal guidance at the time, spend that money this year, make the formula whole, but have districts hold on to it and then basically spend it next year where the formula would un, unfortunately have then been kind of massively underfunded. And what the House folks in consultation with the Senate budget folks and the governor’s office is, the federal, uh, restrictions seem to have been melted slightly to where they can send the money out early next year and that really smoothes out, and it really lets that money build a bridge, save the transportation categorical. It also has a spillover effect in terms of what they were able to propose in their budget in other sectors, including higher ed. So, that money was a big win, uh, we’re gonna still have to fight, um, to make sure that the real far right ideologues in the Senate don’t try to hold that money up and not allow it to be spent.

Show Me Progress: And, and speaking of that, if, uh, if they hold up that money or, literally turn it back, it, it doesn’t have a net effect on the, the federal budget because…

Otto Fajen: No. No, that’s the irony, is that their rhetoric, oh, we’re, we need, we need to be off the federal dole and we’ll help, we’ll help finance the federal debt. But, this money, there’s a distribution mechanism. And if Missouri doesn’t spend it on our schools and our kids it will be redistributed to other states and they will be able to spend it on their kids and their schools.

Show Me Progress: And there are other states that are perfectly happy to do that.

Otto Fajen: California, Illinois, New York, Michigan, they’re gonna be delighted to have an extra hundred and eighty-nine million dollars split, you know, amongst the other states that sense enough to spend this money.

Show Me Progress: Um, what’s the long term outlook, do you think, for, uh, the financial stability of public higher education in the state?

Otto Fajen: It’s not good right now. Uh, we’re, we’re profoundly concern, and that’s, you know, we’re profoundly concerned about this particularly dangerous proposal, the fair tax. But, setting that aside for the moment, even if that, even if we’re able to keep that from coming in and really wrecking state finance, we don’t see the state’s finances being positive enough.  And higher ed is always the one that’s most at risk. K twelve education is written into the constitution at square one and has constitutional protection in terms of funding and adequacy. So, K twelve funding pretty much tracks on a graph with state money. Higher education is the one that’s most at risk when finances turn down. Aand we’re not really seeing a great outlook that things are gonna turn rapidly around in a positive direction where higher ed usually then receives kind of, you know, maybe a bounce back in the really good time. So, we’re profoundly concerned that absent real leadership, real action on revenues, um, we’re gonna continue to see, uh, the kinds of struggles and downsizing that we’re seeing right now in higher ed.

Show Me Progress: And, and in the long term, uh, that has, uh, uh, a definite effect on accessibility and, and, actually, economic outlook for the state.

Otto Fajen: But, at, you know, we, in, in, our folks in K, K twelve really set the stage, but higher ed is where the, the, that’s the capstone. That’s where the real action is in terms of economics. And so, if we’re not gonna make the investment now in terms of serving our kids with higher education they’re not gonna be positioned to be the people we need, um, down the road. And it’s gonna be much more expensive overall in the long run to not have, make, make that investment in higher ed. That’s really, we set the stage for that in K twelve, but the, well, the important action there in, in higher ed has a profound impact on where Missourians end up economically.

Show Me Progress: All right. Well, thank you very much.

Otto Fajen: You’re quite welcome.