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State budget debate places DEI under microscope

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A budget bill approved by the Missouri House of Representatives on March 30 contained language that would have banned state agencies and education institutions from spending state funds on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives or contracting with companies that have such initiatives.

Around 4 a.m. April 26, the Missouri Senate passed its own version of a nearly $50 billion budget bill that did not include the anti-DEI language.

Before and during the debate, Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, the Senate Appropriations Committee chair, had opposed the amendment because it jeopardized federal funding and the state’s ability to do business with contractors and vendors who have DEI programming in place, according to reporting by the Missouri Independent.

“The language they have attached to those budget bills is problematic for a number of reasons. I don’t know if there is a middle ground that can be found there or not,” Hough said to the Independent.

The divergent House and Senate bills now move to reconciliation. May 5 is the deadline to pass the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The House amendment
Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, offered the original amendment disallowing state budget funds to be spent on vendors, consultants or programs with any DEI initiative. In a speech on the House floor, he said the amendment was intended to prevent preferential treatment in state agencies and root out attempts to implement concepts of critical race theory in government programs. It stated, “No funds shall be expended for staffing, vendors, consultants, or programs associated with ‘Diversity, Equity, Inclusion,’ or ‘Diversity, Inclusion, Belonging.’”

The nonpartisan Missouri Budget Project warned against this language, which it said would have wide-ranging consequences. It noted many national accreditation programs require diversity programming for child welfare organizations, health and mental health service providers, and others with state contracts.

It added that accreditation programs for teachers, social workers, psychiatrists, nurses and other health professionals include DEI training requirements.

“Not only would the added budget language jeopardize the accreditation of these programs at Missouri’s public colleges and universities, but the licensure of new professionals could be at risk,” the organization said in an April 6 policy statement.

State initiatives would be impacted, the Missouri Budget Project concluded, including targeted economic development programs and continuing education for law enforcement on racial profiling and explicit bias. Medicaid funding also would be at risk.

Gov. Mike Parson and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry also expressed opposition to the anti-DEI language, with the chamber referring to the measure as a “job killer.”

An anti-DEI amendment proposed in the Senate by Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, would have banned funding for public schools with DEI and belonging initiatives, but it was defeated in a bipartisan vote, the Independent reported.

Local control
Matt Morrow, president and CEO of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, said his organization was vocal in its opposition to the anti-DEI language in its interactions with the Senate since the House bill passed.

He said private businesses need to be able to make their own moves to train local employees and compete for government contracts, he said.

The chamber favors local control, Morrow said, adding there is a need for policymakers to balance how state contracts are awarded to ensure a fair process based on merit and the best return on investment for Missouri.

“All that’s really important, but we have to do that in a way that doesn’t have unintended consequences,” he said. “We want to have as many companies as possible competing for those contracts to get the best return for Missourians. It’s not a good idea to start disqualifying companies based on their unrelated, private business decisions.”

He added that whole swaths of businesses would be disqualified from competing for contracts under the House amendment.

Education impact
Missouri State University President Clif Smart said he is hopeful the Senate version of the bill will carry the day.

He noted MSU, which receives a third of its funding from the state, defines diversity broadly. “It’s not just about race and ethnicity,” he said, noting MSU includes age, disability, political perspectives and all kinds of religious beliefs, including nonbelief, in its definition.

“When we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, we’re essentially talking about how we want everyone to have an opportunity to come to the university as a student or employee and experience belonging, inclusion, a meaningful experience and a successful career,” he said. “We want to treat them fairly.”

Diversity has become a charged term, according to Smart.

“We never viewed it as an evil ideology that focuses on collective guilt or privilege or anything like that,” he said. “We want everyone at the table.”

Smart said the budget bill would primarily change how the university talks about things; for instance, the Bear Bridge program is currently characterized as a diversity program, but in practice it is a faculty mentorship program that is open to all. Similarly, MSU offers an inclusive excellence scholarship, also open to people of all backgrounds, but the name would have to be changed.

Some local educational institutions are altering their approaches to DEI. For instance, a realignment by Springfield Public Schools will change the name of its Office of Equity & Diversity to the Department of Student Access and Opportunity. That department will support an SPS strategic plan goal to “review programming to ensure equitable access to opportunity for all students.”

District spokesperson Stephen Hall said the changes, announced in a news release on April 13, were not in response to the budget bill.

“It was part of a department realignment for our new strategic plan that mirrors what [Superintendent] Dr. [Grenita] Lathan implemented in other districts so that the important work is most effectively and efficiently delivered,” he said.

Ozarks Technical Community College has changed its approach to DEI. Joan Barrett, vice chancellor for student affairs, said a realignment announced in March means its former DEI director, Daniel Ogunyemi, is now the college director for global engagement and opportunity.

Barrett said the office adds international student services to Ogunyemi’s purview.

“We’re always looking for efficiencies, and expanding Daniel’s role was a good move,” Barrett said.

Ogunyemi said students benefit from a global view.

“One of the things we learned from COVID is how connected we are to southwest Missouri and the state of Missouri and also globally,” Ogunyemi said. “We want to be able to provide more perspectives, more opportunities.”

He added that international exposure makes OTC students more job-ready and more able to engage with people of various backgrounds.

Ogunyemi said the realignment expands OTC’s ability to serve all students.

“Diversity means everybody,” he said. “Community colleges are meant to serve everyone, including those on the margins.”

Smart said throughout education, leaders are reevaluating what to call their diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. “It’s not to do a workaround to any prohibition, but to more accurately describe what’s going on,” he said.

At MSU, the office is called the Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and is led by Algerian Hart.

Smart noted that outside of the budget bill, there are some other pieces of legislation that have raised concern, including a bill that would prohibit DEI instruction. Such a bill is a threat to academic freedom, which is important to the university, he said.

In an interview with public radio station KSMU, Smart said that accreditors in health care and teacher education require diversity instruction, since doctors, therapists and teachers have to be able to teach to students from all different backgrounds.

“We don’t want to have unaccredited health care or teacher ed classes or graduates,” he said, noting he would be watching that legislation closely.

SPS and OTC officials declined to offer comment on the budget bill or
other legislation.

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