A student raises a hand in a classroom
(File photo) Second graders study in their classroom Feb. 1 at Faxon Elementary School in Kansas City. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

The first Missouri bill to be signed into law this year contains nearly $2 billion of federal COVID relief funding for public schools. 

After the Senate approved the legislation Wednesday evening by a vote of 25-7, the House accepted the Senate’s changes Thursday morning by a vote of 133-12. 

Gov. Mike Parson’s office announced Thursday afternoon that he had signed the bill. 

The proposal is a supplemental budget bill meant to distribute additional funding for the last few months of the fiscal year, which ends June 30. It also contains Medicaid funding, as well as money for state employee raises that Parson had hoped to provide by Feb. 1. 

Other education-related funding in the budget includes nearly $100 million for private schools and $219 million for school food programs, according to a press release from Parson’s office.

The bill’s passage is a relief for local school districts, which had urged the legislature to appropriate most of the money before a March 24 deadline. 

They planned to use it to improve air quality in buildings and continue programs to increase student learning in the wake of pandemic disruptions. 

During a Kansas City Public Schools board meeting Wednesday evening, vice chair Jennifer Wolfsie encouraged attendees to contact their senators to urge them to pass the bill. 

The $1.95 billion federal relief package for schools came as part of the American Rescue Plan stimulus package from 2021. Not appropriating the majority of the funds by the March 24 deadline would have returned the money to the federal government to be distributed to other states. 

KCUR reported this week that nearly every other state had already appropriated the funding and the vast majority had also begun to spend it. 

Ninety percent of that funding was designated for direct payments to school districts, allocated based on a federal formula that prioritizes schools serving high numbers of families with low incomes. Kansas City Public Schools, Hickman Mills C-1 School District and Independence School District were among those set to receive the most in the Kansas City metro area. 

KCPS alone will receive more than $64 million in American Rescue Plan dollars while charter schools within the district boundaries will receive nearly $53 million combined. 

The new law releases all of the American Rescue Plan funding meant for direct payments to schools — more than $1.7 billion. Since the proposal also contains some funds from an earlier stimulus package, the total amount for public schools would be more than $1.9 billion. 

However, Missouri did not release the 10% of the American Rescue Plan funding that was designated for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. 

Linda Quinley, chief operations and financial officer for KCPS, told The Kansas City Beacon in January that an updated federal rule allows states to postpone appropriating up to one-third of the funds past the March 24 deadline without losing them. 

During a brief discussion of the proposal before it passed Thursday, bill sponsor Rep. Cody Smith, a Republican from Carthage who chairs the House Budget Committee, said the Senate had decided to remove the funds from the budget for the time being while DESE finalizes plans. 

Plans for how DESE would use the money — about $190 million — are “still under development, and I think it’s best to spend that money at a later time,” Smith said. 

DESE had already submitted a plan for spending the funds to the federal government, which approved the plan in October. 

But an earlier version of Smith’s budget proposal would have placed conditions on how DESE should spend the money — including creating a grant program to reimburse families for educational expenses like tutoring and summer programs. It drew criticism from House Democrats that some aspects were poorly planned or could put the funding at risk. 

On Thursday, Democrats expressed relief and gratitude that most of the spending had cleared the Senate and was being expedited in the House. 

“I have been really passionate about how these funds need to go out to our schools and to help our schoolchildren,” said Rep. Ingrid Burnett, a Democrat from Kansas City. “We have time to develop these other plans. Right now, our schools are pleading for our help.”

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.