Its not as though Chris Nicastros job lacks for excitement.
By BARBARA SHELLY
The Kansas City Star
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 states 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 dont get it. Maybe Nicastro just enjoys living on the edge, which is where she now finds herself, with the states 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 Missouris relatively stringent standards arent 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 Childrens 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 hasnt worked, so the group is turning to Sinquefields 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 isnt surprising that folks from the Childrens 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 states Sunshine Law to obtain more than a years worth of email exchanges that show Nicastro in contact with Kate Casas, Sinquefields 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 Missouris open meetings law.
In October 2012, Nicastro emailed a copy of Casas ballot language to the departments 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 Missouris open meetings law allows a public board to discuss an important policy issue like teacher tenure out of the publics 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 staffers 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 thats 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.