Missouri education officials would be able to intervene in failing school districts immediately instead of having to wait two years under a bill being considered by lawmakers.
If passed, the legislation could result in the school board of the unaccredited Kansas City district being dissolved and replaced by a new governing structure developed by the Missouri Department of Education.
“This is not about state takeover,” said Republican Rep. Mike Lair of Chillicothe, the bill’s sponsor. “I can assure you that no one in this building and no one on the state school board wants to take over or take local control away from the people of Kansas City.”
Lair said his bill is simply about giving the state flexibility to deal with problems and opens the door for the state to begin making changes in failing districts sooner rather than later. Under current law, a school district has two years after losing its accreditation to turn its performance around or face the potential of a state takeover.
“If we wait two years, a child that began the ninth grade in Kansas City last September will be a junior before any changes can take place, and out of school before any meaningful changes take hold,” Lair said.
In September, the Missouri Board of Education voted to revoke the accreditation of the Kansas City school district because it failed to reach state performance standards, the second time in 11 years that the district has lost accreditation. The district had slipped to achieving only three out of 14 standards on the state’s annual performance report, a decline from four in the previous year.
Two months later, Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro asked the Kansas City school board to consider voluntarily turning control of the district over to a not-yet-created special administrative board. Board members rejected the suggestion, arguing that the state needed to present a more concrete plan before any discussion of dissolving the school board could take place.
At a legislative hearing Wednesday, Nicastro said current law does not give the state flexibility to deal with specific needs of school districts.
“Allowing a system that has proven to be dysfunctional for decades to continue on for two years is unconscionable,” Nicastro said.
There are a lot of options available to the state once it’s allowed to intervene, Lair said, and his bill does “nothing to endorse or preclude any plans.”
“It simply speeds up the process for 17,000 school children in Kansas City who depend on us to supervise their education,” he said.
Lair pointed to the improved performance of the St. Louis school district, which saw its elected board replaced with a state-imposed one after losing accreditation in June 2007. The district’s superintendent recently reported that the system is close to meeting state requirements to become provisionally accredited.
“Right now, we have an incomplete tool box for how we fix broken schools,” Lair said. “If you find a man lying in the street, you don’t say ‘I’ll be back in 6 hours.’ ”
During the roughly one-hour hearing, no one testified in opposition. In addition to Nicastro, the Missouri National Education Association and the Missouri School Boards’ Association spoke out in support of Lair’s bill.
House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, a Kansas City Democrat, said he also would support Lair’s bill and expects it to be greeted warmly by the rest of the city’s legislative delegation.
Lair said he’s hopeful the legislation won’t get bogged down by other, more controversial education issues that are being discussed around the Missouri Capitol.
Lawmakers are feeling increasing pressure to deal with a state law allowing students in unaccredited districts to transfer to districts in the same county or adjacent counties, at the home district’s expense, a situation that threatens to bankrupt urban districts and overcrowd classrooms in suburban areas.
There is also a need to make alterations to the state’s school funding formula to avoid a potential shift of hundreds of millions of dollars between school districts in the coming years.
House Speaker Steve Tilley, a Republican from Perryville, has said any plan to address those issues should also include other measures that have had difficulty finding legislative success over the years. Those include expanding charter schools, eliminating teacher tenure, basing teacher pay on student achievement and offering tax-credit vouchers to parents who want send children to private schools.
A bill that would allow Kansas City Mayor Sly James to take on leadership of the school district and another that would change the law governing how districts could absorb portions of their unaccredited neighbors have also been introduced.
“I hope my bill can pass cleanly,” Lair said. “I don’t want to see this get wrapped up in all those other things.”
Lair’s bill includes an emergency clause allowing it to go into effect immediately upon being signed by the governor. A similar bill was introduced in the state senate by Republican David Pearce of Warrensburg, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee.