Barbara Shelly

Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro too helpful to foes of teacher tenure

Updated: 2013-11-30T23:39:43Z

By BARBARA SHELLY

The Kansas City Star

It’s not as though Chris Nicastro’s job lacks for excitement.

As Missouri education commissioner, she gets to figure out how to make sure kids in the Kansas City Public Schools and other struggling districts get a quality education without wreaking havoc with the state’s messed-up transfer policy.

Nicasto is also overseeing the roll-out in Missouri of the Common Core standards, a challenging task even without the irrational opposition that is gathering momentum.

So why jump in with both feet to help a group that wants to gut teacher tenure in Missouri?

I don’t get it. Maybe Nicastro just enjoys living on the edge, which is where she now finds herself, with the state’s teacher unions in high dudgeon and their Democratic allies in the state legislature calling for her ouster.

Tenure is harder to come by in Missouri than in many states. A teacher has to work for five years before becoming eligible. In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie is banking accolades for trying to raise the bar from three to four years.

But Missouri’s relatively stringent standards aren’t good enough for people who want to get rid of teacher tenure, period. That would include Rex Sinquefield, the meddling multimillionaire from St. Louis.

The Children’s Education Council of Missouri, a group that Sinquefield funds, has leaned on lawmakers for years to end tenure and make teachers’ jobs contingent on evaluations emphasizing student test scores. The legislative push hasn’t worked, so the group is turning to Sinquefield’s favorite Plan B: a statewide ballot initiative.

Ballot initiatives are tricky matters. They must be worded just so to pass muster with the Missouri secretary of state and, almost inevitably, the courts.

So it isn’t surprising that folks from the Children’s Education Council sought technical advice from Nicastro. But the extent to which Nicastro went to be helpful has raised eyebrows all over Missouri.

The Missouri National Education Association used the state’s Sunshine Law to obtain more than a year’s worth of email exchanges that show Nicastro in contact with Kate Casas, Sinquefield’s state education policy director. This might fall into the category of “routine consultation,” as Nicastro and her defenders on the state Board of Education describe it, but for a couple of problems.

The first is a possible violation of Missouri’s open meetings law.

In October 2012, Nicastro emailed a copy of Casas’ ballot language to the department’s attorney and instructed him to print copies for the state Board of Education to discuss at a closed session. “Do not post,” she cautioned, meaning place on a public agenda.

Nothing in Missouri’s open meetings law allows a public board to discuss an important policy issue like teacher tenure out of the public’s view.

The other problem involved the “fiscal note” that must accompany a ballot initiative, estimating how much the proposed new law would cost.

A staffer in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education surmised that “the potential exists for local school districts to incur significant litigation costs, as well as development and implementation costs,” and concluded that the initiative could result in “significant unknown costs” for districts. Nicastro, in editing the staffer’s work, scratched out the projection and changed “significant unknown costs” to “costs unknown.”

With her closed meeting and sanitation of the fiscal note, Nicastro comes across as looking sneaky. And that’s a shame. Missouri should be talking about the best ways to evaluate, reward and remove teachers. But a ballot initiative pushed by a school choice advocacy group is hardly the best forum for that discussion.

By appearing too supportive of the ballot effort, Nicastro has damaged her standing as an objective authority in an important debate.

To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to bshelly@kcstar.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/bshelly.

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