Missouri lawmakers are close to passing a measure to boost both STEM and computer science education in schools during a special session of the legislature.

The special session was called by Republican Governor Mike Parson to coincide with the annual veto session, so lawmakers could work on two bills he vetoed.

One of the measures, a STEM and computer science bill, would create a program to increase STEM career awareness among middle school students. The program calls for an online-based STEM curriculum.  (STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math, and STEM education generally means integrating the four disciplines into a single curriculum.)

Parson vetoed the measure because of its language designating 12 standards for the curriculum that he said would favor one specific company to be the online curriculum provider.

State Rep. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, speaks on the Missouri House floor in 2017 (photo courtesy of Tim Bommel at Missouri House Communications)

Representative Travis Fitzwater, who authored the legislation, told Missourinet that he’d changed the language in advance to avoid such an objection.  “I just disagree with the veto,” said Fitzwater.  “I’ve worked with Senator Jill Schupp (D, Creve Coeur) to change that language at the end of the session so that it didn’t look like it was narrowly tailored.  We changed the language to (specify) a majority of the standards, so they would just have to fulfill seven of the twelve standards.”

In the end, the Republican from Holts Summit altered the current bill to require just six standards for the online curriculum to satisfy Governor Parson’s concerns.  Concern over the standards may have been elevated after KCUR radio reported in July that Fitzwater said an out-of-state company, Learning Blade, had helped him write his legislation.

The bill, which received bipartisan support when it passed during the regular session, was endorsed by a 10-0 margin by the Senate Economic Development Committee Thursday.

Besides creating an online STEM curriculum, it calls for a dedicated fund to be used exclusively to administer the program.

The other portion of the bill would let high school students substitute one unit of math, science, or practical arts with a computer science course.  The provision would be absorbed into a graduation policy that would be customized to fit each of Missouri’s 567 school districts.

The measure calls for the state to implement computer science standards by the next school year in 2019, and for a procedure to be established recognizing teachers qualified to teach the subject.

David Jackson with the computer science focused nonprofit Code.org said the need for expertise in the discipline is universal.  “People often assume that California and Silicon Valley tech companies (are) looking to try and hire computer programmers, when in reality this is every company everywhere that’s trying to hire computer programmers,” said Jackson.

He quoted numbers that signal a bright economic future for computer science, saying Missouri has 10,000 job openings with an average salary of $80,000 per year, representing nearly $900 million in economic opportunity.

Like in the House hearing earlier this week, a wide-ranging group of educators, businesses and trade groups in addition to Code.org spoke in favor of the bill.

They included Missouri Chamber of Commerce, the Missouri National Educational Association, the Missouri AFL-CIO, the Boeing Company, the Kansas City and St. Louis chamber’ of commerce, Ford Motor Company, and Microsoft Corporation.

And in a replay of the previous House hearing, only one organization spoke in opposition to the measure.  Scott Penman of the Missouri School Counselors Association said substituting a computer science course for a core math or science credit could hinder students entering college.

“When you get to college, the first class you’re going to take is you’re going to write a check to pay to take a math course because those credits are not going to count toward your degree,” said Penman.  “Those credits are going to cost you money when you could have taken that class in high school.”

The bill includes language calling for school districts to notify students who take computer science in place of a math unit that some colleges and universities may require four units of math for admission.

Fitzwater, the bill’s author said it’s substantively the same measure that passed the legislature earlier.  A companion Senate bill from Republican Doug Libla of Poplar Bluff was set aside because Fitzwater’s version was already passed by the House in the special session Wednesday.  It’ll be taken up by the full Senate Friday.

When Governor Parson called for the special session to take place simultaneously with the annual veto session, he said doing so would save taxpayer money by avoiding a separate trip for lawmakers to the Capitol in Jefferson City.

Figures provided to The Associated Press last year showed the House spent more than $47,000 and the Senate nearly $19,000 for lawmakers’ daily expense allowances, mileage reimbursements, and staffing.