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Education bill promoting literacy, testing school drinking water sent to Parson

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JEFFERSON CITY — A sweeping bill that addresses a range of education priorities, including provisions to protect students from lead poisoning and address high illiteracy rates, was finally passed in the House Thursday and sent to the governor for his consideration.

The bill, originally a plan sponsored by Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, to address illiteracy in the state, grew to encompass many largely non-controversial education provisions lawmakers said are vital to education.

“These are all of the things that are necessary for public education to move forward,” said Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka.

The literacy plan creates a new state Office of Literacy, provides literacy education resources for schools and establishes a fund to support evidence-based reading education.

“The meat of this, Senator O’Laughlin’s literacy bill, is absolutely crucial to get passed,” said Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport. “It’s a opportunity for us to just do something for our kids and for their ability to read in the future.”

Advocates for the legislation have noted, according to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data, more than half of students have not reached reading proficiency by eighth grade.

Following the pandemic, DESE data shows, proficiency levels dropped in the 2021 school year, feeding into what some educators have called a literacy crisis.

Another higher profile measure in the bill, pushed by Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, would enact a plan to test schools’ drinking water for lead and install lead filters to protect students.

A national study released in 2021 concluded that Missouri had double the number of children with elevated lead levels in their blood than the national average. Experts have said that there is no safe level of lead exposure for children, and the measure is vital for students’ safety.

The bill also includes provisions to address funding and teacher shortages, like financial incentives for sharing administrators between schools.

The measure institutes a program for substitute teachers to receive certification and allows retired teachers to substitute teach without effecting their pension.

“We need some qualified, certified people with some experience in there quickly to help our children recover from that learning loss,” said Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson, of an emergency clause allowing the substitute teacher provision to be enacted as soon as the bill is signed.

Under the legislation, schools would be required to adopt gifted programs if more than 3% of students tested gifted, computer science education would be expanded, four pilot “recovery high schools” would be established for students with substance abuse disorders, and schools could not use corporal punishment without parent permission.

The bill also includes an expansion of Holocaust education, among many other provisions.

Despite their many wins, lawmakers Thursday bemoaned several provisions removed from the bill by final passage, including a “School Accountability Portal,” open enrollment for schools, Black and Native American history programs, and mandated driver’s education.

The bill now heads to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk for consideration.

The legislation is Senate Bill 681.

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