Category Archives: Education

A Plan to Make Missouri Schools Safer

I’ve received a number of calls and emails regarding my opposition to HB 70. Since the prior post was only three sentences long and the reporter who wrote the article to which they are responding never called to get more details on my position, I thought I’d elaborate on my ideas on how to make schools safer.

I oppose HB 70 because it takes all authority away from local school  boards and school principles to determine elements of school security. On a team, there can only be one quarterback who calls the plays. We need a system of organization that ensures we have the best game-plan possible to protect our children – not legislation which, by its open-ended nature, would do nothing to absolutely require that any particular school is adequately protected with a detailed security plan.

Instead, we need a plan which will improve safety in every school. That’s why I support legislation which would (1) require school districts to name  personnel responsible for security at schools in the district, (2) gives those  school security officers the authority to determine which personnel at schools can carry firearms,[1] (3) provides additional training to school personnel chosen by the security officer to carry a firearm, and (4) protects school security information from public dissemination.[2]

In addition, I believe schools should take down all “gun-free zone” signs and replace them with a sign that warns, “This school is protected by armed personnel.” I believe legislation similar to this will soon be offered and I plan on being one of the first co-sponsors.

[1] In many cases, as I’ve said on KWOS, I believe this would be a school janitor. There are a few reasons for this. First, janitors, as a group, are probably more likely to have experience with firearms. Second, a janitor is not in any particular classroom but instead takes care of the entire school and so is more likely to be in a hallway or more public space in the event of a “live shooter” situation. Third, if it still works like it did when I was in school, janitors carry walkie-talkies around which could be used for immediate communication in an emergency.

[2] I would envision that the security plan and the persons authorized to carry firearms to protect schools would be shared with local law enforcement so that, in the event of an emergency, officers who arrive on the scene can know right away who is on their team when they enter a school.

Committee Assignments

Committee assignments were handed out today. I’m pleased to announce I’ve been named to the following committees:

1. Government Accountability – I have been named chairman of the committee on Government Accountability. This committee was originally created to investigate Mamtek. We have also looked into state contracting and failures by some departments to carry out responsibilities. This committee will continue looking for ways to find and eliminate inefficient, irresponsible, or unaccountable government spending and programs. The committee’s major emphasis this year will be investigating the efficacy of certain tax credits.

2. Education – I have been named the vice-chair of the committee on Elementary and Secondary Education. In this role I will work to ensure every child in our state has the opportunity for a great education – regardless of where they’re born or how much money their parents have. 

3. Appropriations – General Administration - The appropriations committee for general administration oversees the budgets of statewide elected officials and state employee benefits. Just as I have the previous two years, I will use my position on this committee to protect state employee benefits to the best of my ability and to make sure elected officials are living by the same budget constraints as other state employees.

4. Urban Issues – As the “gentleman from urban Cole” now, I’ve been appointed to the committee on urban issues. This committee is new to me. I’m looking forward to learning more about the bills before it in the weeks and months to come. 

Sheriff Greg White Has It Right on School Safety

Cole County Sheriff Greg White told Jefferson City Rotarians last week he’s not in support of legislation which would allow any teacher with a conceal-and-carry permit to carry their firearms on school property without permission from their local school board or building principal. “That’s not necessarily my recommendation,” Sheriff White said. Instead, he urged better mental health treatment and firearms training for school personnel chosen by school administrators and overseen by law enforcement. I agree with Sheriff White. 

DESE Requesting Funds to Buy Testing Accountability Software

A victory for Missouri students, parents, and taxpayers. Last spring, I sponsored legislation to require the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to purchase testing accountability software, writing

If standardized tests are intended to give an accurate measure of student achievement, Missouri taxpayers deserve accountability measures to ensure the system isn’t being gamed.

I’m pleased to report that DESE has likely made this legislation unnecessary as it has requested supplemental budget funds this year to purchase testing accountability software. I’ve also been informed the Department will include a request for the same software in next year’s budget.

High School ‘Academies’ in Action

CNBC reports on a school district in rural Arkansas that went the ‘academies’ route currently under consideration by Jefferson City schools under the direction of Superintendent Brian Mitchell. Mountain Home, Arkansas has been an ‘academies’ district for nearly a decade – and the results have been excellent both there and other places it’s been implemented. 

Do career academies better prepare students for life after high school? Social policy research group MDRC looked at results from nine academies in or near large urban school districts and found that graduates earned, on average, 11 percent more over eight years compared to non-academy peers. The effect was concentrated among men. Nearly all academy students–95 percent–graduated or completed their GEDs. 

More Evidence of Need for Standardized Test Cheating Software

The Post-Dispatch reports this morning on a school in St. Louis where test scores plummeted this year after an alert, responsive, and responsible administrators found and cracked down on cheating. 

While the article notes Superintendent Kelvin Adams has taken steps to detect and deter cheating, we can do a whole lot more for a small amount of money. 

I’m quoted in the article discussing legislation requiring the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to buy software which can flag test anomalies to detect cheating. 

Earlier this year, Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, filed a bill that would have required the state to contract with its testing company to look for instances in which school staff may have changed answers, given students questions in advance or improperly coached students during testing. The bill died, but Barnes said he intends to push the issue again. Administrators at the state education department say they do not have the funding for such analysis.

“I think that 99.9 percent of teachers are honest, if not 99.99, but if the software is out there that can flag situations of cheating, we ought to be using it so that taxpayers and parents know exactly what’s going on with these scores,” Barnes said.

As with the Mamtek legislation, I’ll likely be filing this one every year until the Department either buys the software on its own or the bill passes making them take this common sense measure. 

Has DESE Acted Illegally by Making Their Own Funding Formula?

The Post-Dispatch reports today on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s administrative school funding formula “fix.” The PD reports:

In the past few weeks, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has rolled out an approach for avoiding what soon could be a $700 million shortfall in the state’s school funding formula.

Without a fix, that shortfall would have triggered a breakdown in the formula by which some districts could have lost upwards of 20 percent of state aid, even as other school districts experienced a windfall of new money.

Under the latest plan, the state would reduce the total price tag for funding Missouri’s schools to something closer to what the state can afford.

Doing so allows most districts to receive an amount of state aid closer to what they are currently receiving. Even so, most districts will lose at least a little. And in the case of St. Louis Public Schools, that shortfall is about $3 million.

Here’s what happened. When the legislature re-wrote the formula in 2005, it failed to plan for budget shortfalls. The formula assumes “full” funding every year – and when “full” funding isn’t reached because of a budget crisis, there’s no clear way for DESE to “distribute” the losses. 

I know the folks at DESE are doing the best they can. They’re in a difficult situation. I don’t know if the administrative funding formula they’ve adopted is the best on substantive policy. I am confident they’re doing their best to be fair to all districts. 

But regardless of whether the policy is right on substance, there’s a democratic principle here that cannot be ignored. Even if everyone in the state agrees that the funding formula statutes need to be fixed, they can only be fixed in a way that abides by the constitution.

I believe there are two questions in this case. First, does DESE’s administrative formula re-write conflict with existing statutes? If yes, then DESE’s action is clearly illegal. Second, are there any statutes by which DESE is given the authority to re-write the formula based on an unforeseen circumstance? If no, DESE’s action is clearly illegal.

I do not know the answers to these questions and I wish DESE wasn’t in this situation, but we can’t allow expedience to justify ignoring the proper roles of the legislature versus administrative agencies.

Senate Kills Hardship Travel Bill – Reveals True Colors of Education Reform Opponents

Every once in a while a bill comes along that reveals a group’s true colors. Rep. Rodney Schad’s bill to allow for travel hardship transfers is just such a bill. It would allow transfer to a different school district if the student lives more than 17 miles from their school and there’s another school much closer. 

Over the past four years, only 33 students have requested transfer from a special committee set up under current statutes. But the requests are rarely granted. In committee, we heard testimony from parents who spoke of their children wetting their pants because the school bus ride was so long – and of course getting bullied as a result. We heard other testimony about how, where the student was involved in extra-curricular activities, they consistently leave home before the sun comes up and get back home after it goes down. We heard other testimony about the negative impact that hour-long bus rides each way have on academic performance.

And yet, despite the bill affecting just a tiny number of Missouri school children, school administrators oppose the bill. One family supporting the change explained what it’s about very well in the P-D

Kraft has two daughters whose tuition in Rockwood schools is provided by the Washington district. He successfully argued to the state education department that the 18.8 miles and lengthy bus ride from his home to the Washington schools made them worthy of a hardship transfer. But, concerned that his home district and others would continue to fight such arrangements, he hired a lobbyist to push the bill.

“If you’ve got some families around the state who have a huge commute back and forth and it’s a real hardship … and they’re lucky enough to have a school that’s a lot closer and in the right direction and that school has room for them, why in the world wouldn’t we try to make that happen?” said Kraft, who also has two elementary school-age children enrolled in private schools.

“I’ve listened to hours of arguments by superintendents who are against this. I don’t remember hearing one time where they ever brought up the kids. … Its all about, ‘What if the kids leave? What if we lose too many students?’ It’s all about money.”

Unlike Kraft, Massman’s pleas to the state for a transfer have thus far failed. But like Kraft, Massman has asked legislators to change the law and recently testified in favor of the bill.

“It’s an issue of the students going to the closer schools so they don’t have to have their brain rattled on the bus and then come home all tired to do homework,” Massman said. “And then they can attend extracurricular activities with their friends because they’re close enough. … The bottom line is the kids.

It’s disappointing to me that a bill like this can’t get across the finish line – and it goes to show the extremism of the people who oppose any change whatsoever to education. 

Two Cheers for the Post-Dispatch on Urban Education Editorial

The Post-Dispatch opined yesterday on the latest in the Turner saga.

Short version of the back story: state law allows children in failing school
districts to enroll in neighboring districts. St. Louis has a failing school
district. A parent sued to require neighboring districts to enroll her children
per statutory right. The district court dismissed the suit. The parent appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court which held that the state statute is
constitutional and the neighboring districts have to accept students from
failing districts, but also sent the case back to the district court for
further proceedings. This week the district court ruled the transfer law
unconstitutional as a violation of the Hancock Amendment. The case will be
appealed to the Supreme Court again. In the meantime, thousands of
schoolchildren in the St. Louis area are in legal and educational limbo.

The Post-Dispatch editorial laments the ruling:

We can’t afford to wait through one more dragged-out court case, one more failed legislative session, one more school year with children being used as nothing more than pawns in the same old battle between mostly white suburban school districts and mostly black schoolchildren trapped in broken urban schools.

And then the paper calls for immediate action:

The right thing is for school districts in the same county or in a county adjacent to unaccredited school districts to open their doors and see what happens. Superintendents could do that today, showing historic courage, with no new law and no prodding from the state. State funding will follow the children. It might not be enough. So make do.

Predictions of an exodus from the St. Louis schools are a canard. But even if such an exodus occurred, so what? Figuring out how to deal with that theoretical problem is better than ignoring the existing problem of too many children being left behind.

It’s time for action…..(State Commissioner of Education Chris) Nicastro, with the backing of the state Board of Education, could do what the Legislature has failed to do. She could direct the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to devise an orderly transfer policy, giving suburban schools reasonable opportunities to protect class-size goals, and the ability to plan for what may or may not be an influx of new children….

It’s time for the Nicastro Fix.

This is no small problem we’re laying at the education commissioner’s feet.

But if not her, who?

If not now, when?

The problem is that Nicastro likely doesn’t have the legal authority to move without further action of the legislature. The existing law that requires neighboring districts to accept students without exception:

167.131. 1. The board of education of each district in this state that does not maintain an accredited school pursuant to the authority of the state board of education to classify schools as established in section 161.092 shall pay the tuition of and provide transportation consistent with the provisions of section 167.241 for each pupil resident therein who attends an accredited school in another district of the same or an adjoining county.

There’s nothing in that section that would allow Commissioner Nicastro
to cut off enrollment at one school. The second section of the Turner statute provides a little wiggle room, but it still might not be enough for the
Commissioner to justify unilateral action.

I’m glad to see the Post-Dispatch acknowledges the problem and has called for what I would consider a drastic measure – urging a state administrator to charge ahead without clear legal authority. The fact is that a true Turner “fix” is only necessary because of the claim that the suburban schools can’t accommodate all of the students likely to seek transfer.

HB 1740 took that claim into account by allowing for students in
unaccredited districts to access new scholarships for private education – the end result being that space was found for every student believed likely to want to transfer out of the failing school district. The PD dismisses the scholarships portion of the bill as just a “divisive element” of the education reform debate that should be separated from the Turner ‘fix.’

The fact, however, is that this element cannot be separated from the Turner ‘fix’ because without it there would be thousands of students in the unaccredited district denied their right to transfer to an effective school. It is unfortunate that the PD lets its own ideology get in the way of supporting this limited alternative to empower all students in St. Louis, not just those who get first in line to transfer to outside school districts. Maybe with a little time the paper will come around on this issue too.

Life Lessons from The Incredibles

Some of the arguments made against the expansion of charter schools in this morning’s hearing in the House Education Committee reminded me of the underlying morale of The Incredibles, one of my favorite movies. As a society and as individuals, we should celebrate and encourage kids to use their talents. We should not foster a lowest-common denominator society. If you’ve got talent, USE IT!