Replacing a crisis with chaos won’t help Missouri children learn

01/11/2014 5:21 PM

01/11/2014 5:21 PM

Heads up, all you school leaders and mayors and parents around these parts who are anxious to avoid the hammer of Missouri’s ill-conceived transfer law. Tim Jones, speaker of the Missouri House, is talking to you.

“To those who call the current open enrollment law a ‘crisis,’ many of us say, we are glad you finally noticed that there is a crisis in public education,” Jones said during a speech to open the 2014 legislative session on Wednesday.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. We are glad you are glad. But, actually, people around Kansas City are acutely aware that we have a crisis in public education. We just don’t think addressing a crisis by creating another crisis makes much sense.

While a host of lawmakers are drafting bills to fix an outdated provision in state law, Jones, a Republican from Eureka, is trumpeting the transfer policy, or “open enrollment,” as he prefers to call it.

Unless the General Assembly acts, students in the unaccredited Kansas City Public Schools will probably be able to attend neighboring accredited districts next school year, with the Kansas City district paying tuition and transportation. Two school districts near St. Louis are facing bankruptcy because of the policy, and expectations are the entire Kansas City district would quickly encounter the same fate, even though it is finally showing administrative stability and some of its schools are quite successful.

To Jones and some others, that would be a good thing. The Missouri legislature is beset with agendas when it comes to educating children and doling out the money for that task. Many of those agendas involve damaging local school districts.

Ed Emery, a Republican state senator from Lamar, gave voice to the antipathy at a recent forum in Joplin. “We have given over so much control of the education of our children that we no longer have public schools, we have government schools,” he said. “We have government-paid teachers, a government-directed curriculum, and we meet in government-supplied buildings.”

Oh, my. Education taking place in public buildings. What a scary thought.

Emery is the Missouri state chairman for the American Legislative Exchange Council, which encourages states to transfer public education funds to private operators through vouchers and tax credits. Jones, who controls the legislative agenda in the House, has a longstanding relationship with the council, which also seeks to weaken teachers’ unions.

Those aims are shared by the Children’s Education Council of Missouri, which is financed by Rex Sinquefield, the St. Louis billionaire who forks over money for ballot initiatives and outlandish campaign contributions. That group is at work on a ballot issue to limit teacher contracts to three years or fewer, with retention hinging largely on high-stakes student testing.

Troubled districts like the Kansas City Public Schools provide great fodder for those wanting to upend traditional public education. They enable Jones to say, as he did Wednesday: “... we must see this crisis as an opportunity to stop doing business as usual in our system of education and start embracing innovation that will lead to better educational outcomes.”

But innovation for innovation’s sake doesn’t necessarily help children. A look at the mostly rocky charter school experience in Kansas City is testimony to that.

Likewise, no research suggests that busing students out of city neighborhoods to attend suburban schools is a better idea than empowering successful school districts to bring their methods into struggling urban school buildings — which is what a group of superintendents has proposed as an alternative to the transfer law.

All we do know is that the transfer law will accelerate the destruction of the Kansas City Public Schools and create turmoil for other districts. And for Jones and others, that is a perfectly desirable result.

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