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At issue: New players, old topics in play for Missouri schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 11, 2012 - Pop quiz time: What are the most pressing education issues facing Missouri?

In this year’s session of the General Assembly, schools were the subject of a lot of debate, but when the final gavel came down in mid-May, the only legislation of consequence to cross the finish line was a comprehensive charter school bill. It expands charters beyond their former limits of St. Louis and Kansas City and establishes a statewide commission to help oversee them.

A lot of other issues dealing with the state’s 916,000 public school students and 520 school districts fell short, defeated or abandoned because of too little support, too much opposition, too little time to find common ground or too sharp clashes among competing interests.

For example, efforts to let the state step in immediately to aid the unaccredited Kansas City schools passed unanimously in the Senate but ran up against opposition in the House from those who wanted wholesale changes in the law governing teacher tenure. The result: Neither bill passed.

Both issues are likely to come up again next year, even though the cast of characters in the education debates will have changed because of lawmakers who have moved on. Whether their replacements will be able to work together to get more done will provide a civics lesson likely to draw attention throughout Missouri.

The Beacon asked those involved with education policy about the outlook for those issues and more in the coming year. Here’s what they had to say.

Foundation formula

One of the most constant battlegrounds in education in Jefferson City is over the complex formula used to support Missouri’s public schools. At issue is both fair funding – whether districts are getting the help they need from the state – and full funding, whether there is enough money to go around.

The second question may depend, at least in part, on whether voters approve Proposition B, the 73-cent-a-pack cigarette tax on the ballot Nov. 6. The measure calls for a large part of the projected increase in state revenue to go to schools – an estimated $223 million, according to supporters.

How that money would be divvied up if it becomes available is the second part of the equation, and finding an answer that everyone can agree on has been elusive.

“We need to make sure that school districts are being treated fairly across the state, both in good economic times and bad,” says House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka. “If it’s time to make changes in the formula, it’s time for some of my colleagues who are experts in that area to take a look at it.”

Jones said that while it’s clear that money is important to achieving good education, he wants to make sure the money is being spent wisely.

“If you look at any study that has been done on education in the past 30 or 40 years,” he said, “the money that has been poured into public education has skyrocketed, but performance has flat-lined. So there has been no corollary between spending more money in education and children doing better in school.”

State Rep. Tishaura Jones, a Democrat who is leaving the legislature after winning the Democratic primary for treasurer in St. Louis, has worked actively on the formula and a host of other school issues. She hopes her soon-to-be former colleagues keep on pushing for a fair way to allocate scarce resources.

“We tried and tried and tried to do it last session,” she said, “and I thought we had a pretty good compromise. I’d like to see them take a stab at that again.

“The way the formula is set up, there are clear winners and losers. With no fix this year, it didn’t hurt the St. Louis public schools, which ended up getting more. But is that fair to a rural district like Hayti or Caruthersville? No one knows. With the way our formula is set up, with different tax bases, that hurts some of the poorer counties.”

State Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, who is set to take over as head of the legislature’s joint committee on education if he wins re-election next month, wants a formula that will let school officials plan better. And he wants the law to be clear enough and fair enough that the decisions on doling out school funds don’t end up by default with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“The more constant dollars we can count on,” he said, “the better off we all are. Just to abdicate it to DESE to make decisions and not give them predictability is not in the best interests of our districts.

“We had several senators who were ready to filibuster it. I think we abdicated our responsibility. But I think the people have seen what can happen if we don’t decide.”

School choice and other changes

One topic that isn’t likely to get the kind of attention it has received in recent legislative sessions is the so-called Turner case. Named for its original plaintiffs, who have since dropped out, it sought to enforce a law that would let students living in an unaccredited school district attend class in a nearby accredited district, with the home district paying the cost and the receiving district having no say about how many students it must accept.

Efforts to change the law have fallen short, and a St. Louis County judge ruled the law invalid because it violates the financial provisions of the Hancock amendment.

Now, the case is now in the hands of the Missouri Supreme Court for the second time, so Tim Jones and others don’t expect lawmakers to spend any time trying to come up with their own solution until they see what the judges decide.

“The court decision makes Turner moot,” he said. “We really cannot do anything on that now because the courts have ruled.”

But that’s not to say that lawmakers won’t put any effort into ways to give students more choice in where they go to school, and parents more say about forcing schools to change.

One avenue that has seen a lot of publicity lately, the parent trigger, was sponsored by Tim Jones last year, and he expects other lawmakers to take up the cause.

The trigger would force changes at underachieving schools when a majority of parents sign a petition against the current administration and its policies. It was the subject of the recent Hollywood movie “Won’t Back Down,” which featured a fictional school where not only parents but teachers pushed for wholesale changes.

Some groups consider it a good way to give families more power over how their schools are run, but Pearce for one isn’t impressed.

“I don’t think you can set public policy in Hollywood,” he said. “I think that’s a bad reason to do anything.

“We already have many ways for communities to be engaged. Every year, when people vote for school board members, that is probably the most important vote in any community. If people want to get involved, they can run for the school board, or people can make their wishes known to local school boards.”

School quality and teacher tenure

Other bills that have attracted a lot of attention in Jefferson City have been about teachers and how they – and the schools where they work --– should be evaluated.

Kate Casas, state director of the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, would like to see a simple letter grade system – A down to F – that would help parents and others get a quick view of how well a particular school is doing.

“What we have found in dealing with parents is it is really difficult to get through all the noise and figure out what schools really are going to produce high-quality results for kids.” Casas said. “We would like to find a simple way for parents to recognize them.

“With the charter expansion bill and more students choosing private schools and traditional public schools having more intradistrict open enrollment, it’s important for parents to be informed consumers on what school is the best one for their kids.”

She said the state’s rating system for school districts doesn’t go far enough to give parents information about specific schools.

And since such a big part of a school’s success is the teachers who work there, Casas and others would like to see lawmakers put a greater emphasis on letting the public know how well teachers are doing their job.

DESE is starting a pilot project on teacher evaluation, and Casas praised that effort.

“We think it’s great,” she said. “We’d like to see a growth model that would evaluate teachers. But we would like the majority of the evaluation to be based on student performance, and there is no statutory authority to force districts to use that evaluation model.

“We want there to be a fair amount of local control. We don’t want to dictate what the rest of the evaluation is made up of. But our philosophy is that there should be expectations set, then there should be a clear way to make sure those expectations are being met. How you get there is up to you, but at the end of the day we want districts to prove that teachers are producing good outcomes. While we trust the commissioner and the state board, we can’t predict what will be in place in 10 or 15 years.”

Teachers who fall short in their performance also got a lot of attention in the last legislative session. At one point, a tough tenure bill would have put a lot of regulations in place on how teachers could stay in their jobs and how districts could replace them if they weren’t doing well.

That effort got watered down, a development that Tim Jones laid at the feet of teachers’ unions.

“They’re our biggest obstacle,” he said. “I’d like them to be part of the solution and stop being part of the problem. I would love to have their cooperation and buy-in on some of these new innovative measures. In states where they have been implemented, you have seen positive results.”

Pearce agreed.

“If you’re going to do that,” he said, “you need to have teachers at the bargaining table. This is what they did in the state of Colorado, which has a pretty good teacher performance bill. We’ve got to have teachers and administrators who are trained to make tough decisions.”

But, he added, it’s not easy determining how much of a teacher’s evaluation should include test scores.

“It’s really tough,” Pearce said, “because at the lower levels, in elementary school, sometimes the better teachers are given the harder students to work with, because they can make a difference. So you don’t want to downgrade teachers who take on the tougher students. One size fits all doesn’t work.”

Tishaura Jones wants to see more cooperation between DESE and the legislature.

“I sat down with DESE and said these are things we’re proposing,” she said. “Is this possible? Is this something you can support, and is this something you think you can implement?

“I think it goes a long way when you can sit down with the department that your bill is going to affect and see if these are things they can support and implement. I don’t know that that happens all the time. I’m not saying the department supported everything I proposed, either. There had to be some compromise.”

More talk, less tension

Whatever happens with school-related legislation is likely to depend in large part on how well lawmakers are able to put aside sharp partisan and philosophical differences – an effort that hasn’t fared too well in recent years.

Many lawmakers who have been heavily involved in education won’t be returning to Jefferson City. Tishaura Jones chose to run for city treasurer, state Sen. Jane Cunningham was redistricted out of the area she has been representing and state Rep. Scott Dieckhaus, who chaired the House education committee, retired to direct the House GOP campaign committee.

Pearce said the maneuvering over the teacher tenure bill was “politics at its worst. They held our bill hostage. The House basically wouldn’t take it up. I hope that we can rise above that this year.”

Tishaura Jones echoes that sentiment, even though she will be watching from a distance. Though some of the people who blocked education bills will be gone, “I don’t know who they will be replaced with.

“I am hoping that the difference as far as the number of Democrats compared with Republicans gets more even. My first year, when there wasn’t so much difference, there was more cooperation, versus last year when they were only three votes shy of a veto-proof majority.

“I’d like to see more balance there. You find that people work together when there is more balance rather than just trying to make sure you can get 82 votes to push things through.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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