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Alphabet soup: education bill ranges from alternative certification to volunteerism

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 28, 2009 - Senate Bill 291 started out as a modest plan to expand virtual schools across Missouri. Its sponsor, Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-Kansas City, probably didn't expect his bill to become a magnet for a variety of proposals, some routine, others far-reaching. No fewer than two dozen changes were wrapped into SB 291 before lawmakers approved it.

"There was more education reform in that bill than I've seen in my previous eight years in the Legislature," says Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, who previously served in the House before being elected to her first state Senate term last fall.

At the top of her list is the voluntary performance-based salary program that she and state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, pushed through for teachers in the St. Louis school district. The program, not supported by teachers union Local 420, would offer teachers the chance to earn bonuses up to $15,000 if they raise test scores to a certain level. Cunningham and Smith say the program would give good teachers an added incentive to improve test scores.

"What we're trying to do is recognize those teachers who contribute a lot," Cunningham says.

The district will now also have an easier time getting rid of underperforming teachers who participate in the performance-based salary program, Smith says. Now, the appeals process open to a teacher can take up to three years before the district can fire a teacher for cause.

Union leaders say that this flexibility amounts to denying teachers due process. They add that the debate may be irrelevant because they aren't sure the Legislature will find the money for the performance bonuses.

"In addition, there's also no evidence that merit pay works," argues Byron Clemens, vice president of Local 420. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Instead of merit pay and taking away due process for teachers, we have plenty of things for the senators to work on. They can fully fund pre-K programs in city schools. It's a program that works, and it's the key to reviving city schools."

The Pre-Kindergarten set

Actually, Smith doesn't disagree. He succeeded in getting limited funding for a pre-kindergarten program, called Preschool Plus, but it wouldn't bring services to all city schools as Clemens would like. Even so, Smith sees his program, which would serve nearly 1,300 students, as a good start.

Smith says that some youngsters eventually end up in trouble and in jail because too little attention is paid to their mental development at a crucial stage in their lives. A pre-K program is important to neurological development, he says, especially among children who otherwise would receive "little mental stimulation" at an early age.

Real learning in Virtual Schools

Missouri's virtual school law, which allows students to take courses through the internet, came in for some changes. The service is being expanded to students in any grade, and it allows private and parochial school students to enroll in virtual courses offered in school districts in which they live. Cunningham says the law also needed to be amended to expand the number of private virtual school providers in Missouri. She says expansion would create more competition and help the state and districts get better prices for the services.

Virtual schools can accommodate a range of student needs, Cunningham says, citing cases of pregnant girls wishing to continue their education on line; children who are hospitalized and unable to attend school; and students who might be traveling with their parents and wanting to continue their education through a virtual school on the internet.

Clemens, the union official, cautions that the program has been abused in some other states where parents and students have lied about residency to take virtual school courses outside of their home districts.

A bet that paid off -- and one that didn't

Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, says one of the most significant education proposals wrapped into SB 291 was his requirement that money from repeal of the loss limits be "spent in the classroom" for teacher salaries, early childhood services and transportation. He estimates the money will mean tens of millions of dollars more for education, adding an average of $120 a pupil for each school district.

Mayer says that the biggest missed opportunity for education was the failure to pass Gov. Jay Nixon's Missouri Promise program to expand the A Plus Scholarship fund to more high school graduates.

The bill "would have moved Missouri forward by creating a more educated and skilled workforce for business," said Mayer. "Yes, I know it would have cost more money, but I agreed with Gov. Nixon. It was a goal that we need to try to attain."

Other provisions in SB291 grab bag

Comparing charter schools and regular schools. Missouri is expected to commission a study to compare the performance of charter school students with a comparable group of students in regular public schools in the same district. Initially, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was expected to handle the study. But state lawmakers later decided that the Joint Committee on Education would be responsible for deciding how the study would be done and who would conduct it. Depending on how detailed this study becomes, its results could help settle some arguments about the strengths and weaknesses of charter schools.

Study of open enrollment between school districts. Some students live in one district but wish they could enroll in one that offered courses and programs more in line with their interests and career goals. Other students who live in failing districts wish they could attend schools in better districts. State lawmakers have commissioned a study of this issue. The challenge, Smith says, is figuring out how open enrollment would work between districts. "The devil is in the details," he says.

Charter school sponsorships. This is another bill with bipartisan support. Colleges and universities receive about 1.5 percent of a charter school's state funding as compensation for sponsoring a school. The new law will ensure they spend the money appropriately, Smith says. "The sponsors could spend the money to buy football jerseys," he says. "But now they will be required to spend 90 percent of the revenue on direct oversight." That includes money for professional development programs and scholarships, he says.

Four-day school week. While supporting this measure, sponsored by Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, many lawmakers say shorter school weeks probably will generate little interest in urban districts. They say the measure is likely to appeal mostly to rural districts trying to cut costs for services such as busing.

Alternative teacher certification. Cunningham pushed this measure because she says districts were having difficulty finding teachers for courses in "banking and financial responsibility." Districts can now allow people with degrees and experience in banking and other financial areas to teach these courses, even if they lack teaching certificates.

Eliminating tenure for some city school employees. This provision, which covers aides and teaching assistants, was especially upsetting to teachers union Local 420. "Tell me what does taking away due process have to do with student achievement?" ask Local 420's Clemens. He says the measure looks like "union busting," but backers say the measure will make it easier to remove incompetent, non-certified employees. The legislation doesn't affect current workers but eliminates protection for people hired after August 28 of this year.

Foster care bill of rights. This legislation, championed by state Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, would require districts to have an "educational liaison" to ensure foster children get proper educational placement when they transfer between districts. Too often, some lawmakers say, children don't get any help adjusting to a new school after they are placed in new homes.

Paid volunteerism. Lawmakers set up an incentive program to reimburse a parent up to $500 every two years for every 100 hours the parent donates to a school that's unaccredited, provisionally accredited or serving at-risk students. The reimbursements would depend on whether legislators allocate money for the program.

A key mover behind the program was Sen. Yvonne Wilson, D-Kansas City. Asked why parents should be paid to volunteer, she said, "You'd have them, but I do believe that this is an added incentive for them to get involved. We offer financial incentives for a lot of things, and I hope this one encourages more parents to get into the classroom see what is going on and take an interest in playing a big part in the education of their children."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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