Kansas City Star, March 25

McCaskill and Wagner battle sex trafficking on Backpage — and score a bipartisan win

Critics of the legislative process in Washington often complain about its slow pace. And they are often right.

A good example of the slow-motion style of legislation is the "Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act" that two veteran Missouri lawmakers spearheaded: Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and Congresswoman Ann Wagner, a Republican from the St. Louis area.

The desperately needed law was years in the making. It finally gives law enforcement the tools it needs to more easily prosecute websites that facilitate sex trafficking. The bill, which this week passed the Senate 97-2 and is on its way to President Donald Trump, also allows victims to pursue federal civil claims. Trump is expected to sign the bill into law.

Ever since the wildly lucrative world of sex trafficking moved from the streets to the internet, market leaders in commercial sex advertising like Backpage have hidden behind an antiquated section of the Communications Decency Act. The act provided Backpage with what McCaskill called "complete and total immunity from being held accountable for their bad behavior."

The McCaskill-Wagner legislation ensures that such websites can be held liable. Backpage has annual revenues topping $150 million and has been linked to hundreds of reported cases of sex trafficking.

The law has allowed Backpage "to knowingly facilitate sex trafficking of children online," McCaskill said when the Senate passed the bill. "But that ends today."

Wagner, who once was considered a possible challenger to McCaskill in this year's Senate race, called the legislation transformative because it will discourage businesses from getting involved in sex trafficking.

The law "will produce more prosecutions of bad-actor websites, more convictions, and put more predators behind bars," Wagner said.

When Backpage refused to turn over documents the Senate sought, McCaskill and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican, sought a resolution authorizing a lawsuit against the company. The Senate adopted it 96-0, leading to the first such action in 20 years. Backpage battled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before losing.

"We took on a powerful company that stonewalled us at every turn," McCaskill said.

Under the legislation, local prosecutors can now bring charges against companies like Backpage and attorneys general across the country can file civil claims in federal court.

Wagner's fight for the new law dates to shortly after her 2012 election to Congress. Over the years, she has spoken frequently on the topic, including to the United Nations. She refers to sex trafficking as "modern-day slavery" and those who traffic in the business as "slave traders."

After the House vote, she acknowledged that passing the law took awhile. Convincing members of Congress of the scope of the problem took time.

But this fight was worth it.

St. Joseph News-Press, March 21

Big shift helping students, Missouri

Remedial coursework is down — by a lot — on Missouri's college and university campuses.

This is a huge positive both for students and state leaders seeking to boost degree-completion rates. The development owes a lot to the focused attention of higher education leaders and their willingness to share ideas and pursue best practices discovered along the way.

We have tracked this trend for several years, ever since the rate of remedial, or "developmental," courses spiked above 35 percent for public high school graduates enrolling in state institutions. Missouri Western State University, with its open enrollment policy, had among the highest rates.

The overall rate was reported to be 35.6 percent in 2013; it has fallen steadily since and reached 22.8 percent in 2017 — a drop of nearly 13 percentage points. The improvement is even greater for African-American students — from 65.5 percent in 2013 to 46 percent last year. For Hispanic students, the rate dropped from 43.8 percent in 2013 to 27.2 percent in 2017.

The Missouri Department of Higher Education notes that since remedial courses in subjects such as reading and math do not qualify for college credit, students needing these classes often have to spend an extra semester or more in college — adding to college costs and student loan debt.

Research also has found students who take remedial education courses are far less likely to graduate than students who don't. This in turn impacts the state, which is seeking to speed up its output of graduates to meet workforce needs.

Facing down these issues, state higher education leaders have worked with the colleges and universities over the last five years. The most recent report on this project shows great progress that can be attributed to an effort to adopt and reinforce ideas that work.

State officials say a majority of institutions now offer credit-bearing "corequisite" courses in math and English for students who otherwise would have taken a remedial class. These courses come with additional tutoring, mentoring, labs and workshops to help students master the material.

Most of the institutions also have begun using multiple measures to place students in courses. Instead of relying solely on an ACT or SAT score, the institutions are taking into account classes completed in high school and the student's entering grade-point average to determine whether remedial classes are needed before enrolling in college-level work.

There is still much room for improvement, but the five-year trend suggests this is not unrealistic to expect.

Columbia Daily Tribune, March 22

Let free market decide University of Missouri's tuition

A proposal to add $30 million to Missouri's public colleges and universities in exchange for tuition freezes is lacking steam. Hopefully it stays that way.

House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, is pushing the matter, but Senate leaders and even some in the House haven't endorsed the proposal.

Fitzpatrick's heart is in the right place; he wants Missouri's institutions of higher learning to be affordable for students. So do we. But allowing the state to dictate tuition would be government overreach. The University of Missouri System and others need to be able to operate as free markets, and not be beholden to deals with politicians.

There already is a cap on tuition increases at 2.1 percent to keep with inflation. At UM, a 2.1 percent increase would be about equal to its chunk of the $30 million Fitzpatrick wants added to the budget. Basically, there's not much to gain other than more red tape.

UM's enrollment has fallen precipitously in the last couple of years, and university officials are already looking for new and creative ways to bolster enrollment. Affordability will be key to beefing up enrollment numbers.

When lawmakers return from their break we'll know more about their funding intentions for higher education. The UM Board of Curators will discuss the likelihood of a tuition increase during its April meeting.

Missouri's institutions of higher learning have been on the chopping block by state politicians long enough. We'd like the legislature to add back $30 million, but without strings attached.