JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Missouri senators have endorsed a plan that would merge the state's two education oversight boards into one responsible for education from kindergarten through doctoral programs.
Under the plan, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Department of Higher Education would become a single state agency led by a six-member state education board. The new agency would inherit the duties of the existing boards, although the Legislature will decide later on much of its power and specific responsibilities.
The changes require two constitutional amendments, and if they clear the Legislature, the merger could appear on the November ballot. If voters approved, the education boards would be consolidated July 1, 2011.
Senators on Thursday passed the first constitutional amendment 30-0, sending it to the House. Its companion measure was endorsed by voice vote and needs a second round of approval before House members can consider it.
Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields said merging the state departments could save money, but the main goal was to streamline Missouri's education system and increase the number of students who stay in classes beyond high school.
"The goal is to create a better system of education," said Shields, R-St. Joseph.
The Coordinating Board for Higher Education endorsed the merger and called the Senate's vote an important first step.
State boards responsible for K-12 education, higher education and early childhood education met Thursday before the Senate vote and discussed the possible changes. The meeting had been scheduled before lawmakers started debating the consolidation.
Some education officials said the merger could benefit the state by allowing the board to look at issues at all levels of education. But several questioned the wisdom of creating a single state education board. There were concerns education leaders would need to become generalists and lose their expertise. Others worried about the workload.
Stan Archie, a member of the State Board of Education that oversees elementary and secondary schools, said he feared decisions on the merger could become political and changes were being made without fully considering the ramifications.
"We can't make change for change's sake," Archie said. "We've got to have a strategy."
Senators quickly endorsed the first element of the merger but spent much of the week debating a second portion establishing the new education board's authority.
The proposal eventually approved by the Senate would give lawmakers more oversight. Currently, the members of state education boards are chosen by the governor and approved by the Senate. The boards then select commissioners to oversee K-12 schools and higher education.
Under the new plan, senators would confirm the education board members and sign off on the education commissioner.
The commissioners are responsible for the state education departments' daily operation and function much like a school superintendent.
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