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Here’s what Influencers had to say about universal pre-K, other education issues

A pre-kindergarten student works on an assignment in the Hickman Mills School District.
A pre-kindergarten student works on an assignment in the Hickman Mills School District.

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Missouri Influencer Series

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Closing racial achievement gaps and boosting vocational education were high on the Missouri Influencers’ list of priorities.

For more than 60 percent of the 43 leaders who responded to the third survey in the Missouri Influencers Series, those were the state’s top education issues. Read what they all had to say on their biggest concern in Missouri’s education system.

Providing universal pre-K

Sly James, mayor of Kansas City: “Quality, universal pre-K provides the best foundation for kindergarten readiness which is important to third grade reading proficiency. It also helps reduce the achievement gap.”

Gwen Grant, president and CEO, Urban League of Greater Kansas City: “I think providing universal pre-K is one of the most important issues to address because numerous bodies of research have validated the need. However, the more challenging question is how to pay for it. Universal pre-K, in principle, has universal support until you add the caveat that taxpayers have to carry the burden of funding it, especially low-income wage earners who are already hard-pressed to make ends meet for their families, and older adults on fixed incomes who no longer have to worry about educating their children.”

Mark Bryant, lawyer and former Kansas City Council member: “I believe pre-K education is the most important issue to address because it will improve academic performance of most students and help close the racial achievement gaps.”

Kay Barnes, former mayor of Kansas City, senior director for university engagement at Park University: “Providing readily available quality pre-K education is critical for our region’s future. The early preparation for youngsters before ending K-12 school makes a huge difference in their attitude and performance as they mature.”

Jane Dueker, lawyer, radio host and former political adviser: “Studies confirm the early childhood education provides an incredible return on investment and is a huge step in closing the racial and socioeconomic achievement gap. Missouri is woefully behind all of our surrounding states in its commitment to early childhood education. Early childhood education reduces later incarceration and increases chances for successful post high school success.”

Mike Talboy, director of government affairs at Burns & McDonnell, former legislator: “Pre-K is a key issue to having success later in the education of a child. The data is startling on the difference in levels for those with and without the head start. However, this goes hand in glove with making sure you can recruit and retain the best educators possible. There is an ocean worth of room to improve on how we value teachers and the important cog in the wheel of a productive society they truly are.”

Pam Whiting, vice president for communications, Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce: “Studies in brain development show that the earliest years are most critical. 90% of brain development occurs by the age of 5. (In fact, if a baby’s body developed as quickly as its brain, the infant would weigh 170 pounds at one month old.) Meanwhile, too many of our youngsters don’t have the skills they need when they enter kindergarten. They’re already behind before they even begin. We need to focus on the very youngest to ensure their future success and that of our community.”

Jeff Simon, managing partner, Husch Blackwell: “Providing universal pre-K is the most important issue to address because it is the foundation upon which all other education solutions will be built. We know that kids without pre-K start the race one lap down. We also know that, if that learning gap is not narrowed or eliminated by the third grade, that child’s entire academic career is at high risk of being compromised.”

Luis Cordoba, Kansas City Public Schools’ chief student support and intervention officer: “Providing universal pre-K education to our community children is primary. Our nation’s top researchers come away with one common message: kids who attend public preschool programs come better prepared when they enter into kindergarten than children who don’t. Pre-K programs benefit poor and disadvantaged kids who are dual-language learners, and according to the research, make the most gains. Dual-language learners also experience the value of being immersed in a diverse array of classmates. Children coming from a quality pre-K program have an opportunity to be better prepared in reading proficiency by third grade. The most important reasons to support pre-K educational programs is that children are less likely to be involved in behavior that may lead to criminal activity. We often talk about the (school-to-prison pipeline) but do nothing to support the programs that help keep children engage and active in their learning journey. Pre-K programs create the pathway to ‘school pipeline to higher education.’”

John Fierro, Kansas City Public Schools board member: “Kids enrolled in pre-k programs aren’t just learning how to recognize letters and numbers; they are also learning critical social skills and the importance of working independently in the classroom. Many children struggle with social skills and behavioral problems in kindergarten. Pre-kindergarten programs are essential in teaching kids the social skills they need for later grades, not just the academic skills.”

Increasing teacher pay, retaining teachers

Bob Holden, former governor: “We must get better people in the teaching profession and keep them in the profession. Teachers have the greatest influence on the students outcomes except for the parents and the student living environment.”

Jennifer Lowry, chief toxicologist at Children’s Mercy: “The most important issue regarding education is paying and retaining teachers for all schools. This is especially important in small and inner-city schools where there is less funding for teachers salaries. The result is less qualified teachers or large turnover in schools where they are needed the most. Only by improving the retention of good teachers will there be a decrease in the racial achievement gaps to lift children out of poverty.”

Phil Snowden, University of Missouri Board of Curators member, former legislator: “Teachers and professors at all levels are responsible for molding our children at all ages. Without decent wages we will end up with substandard teaching for the most part. To accomplish this, funding for schools at all levels will need to increase whether it is the state, donors or the local school district.”

Dianne Lynch, president of Stephens College: “If money talks, Missouri’s message to the dedicated educators in our children’s classrooms is loud and clear: We rank a dismal (41st) out of 51 nationally when it comes to teacher salaries. As communities clamor for better educational outcomes for every child, even a third-grader could tell you there’s something wrong with those numbers.”

Scott Charton, CEO of Charton Communications: “Increasing teacher pay and retaining good teachers is so basic — the brightest, most energetic and committed teachers, backed up with resources and safe environments for teaching and learning, are building our common future.”

Mark Bedell, Kansas City Public Schools superintendent: “Retaining teachers. I chose this one because dreams begin and end depending on the quality of the teachers. There’s a plethora of research that shows correlations between teacher quality and student academic achievement.”

Improving school safety

Reza Derakshani, EyeVerify developer: “Parents shouldn’t worry about ever seeing their kids again when they drop them off at school!”

Deb Hermann, CEO of Northland Neighborhoods Inc., former Kansas City Council member: “Improving school safety needs to be an issue that the schools are only a part of the solution.”

Closing racial achievement gaps

Chris Maples, interim chancellor at Missouri University for Science & Technology: “I believe closing racial (and general economic) achievement gaps is the most important education issue in Missouri. We need an educated workforce, but that education should not be distributed based on race, family achievement or overall economic opportunities. Both inner-city and rural students share in the challenges of accessible high-quality education.”

Jean Paul Bradshaw, lawyer and former U.S. attorney: “Probably closing racial achievement gaps, but it will also be the most difficult to accomplish because the problem is not one limited to the educational system. Family and community environment is a very significant impediment. We learned in KC that simply having higher funding and better buildings is not going to be enough. But without it, it will be difficult to close other gaps in our society.”

Maurice Watson, partner at Husch Blackwell: “Closing racial achievement gaps because such gaps create persistent, multi-generational socioeconomic disadvantage.”

Scott Wagner, Kansas City mayor pro tem: “Closing racial achievement gaps are critical to expanding the state’s workforce, especially in careers where the number of participants are lowest: STEM, construction, health care.”

Crosby Kemper III, director of Kansas City Public Library, co-founder of Show-Me Institute: “The racial gap which relates to the poverty gap can be affected by a better educational system. Our racial problems, workforce problems, and even slow economic growth are all a product of this. The best answer to inequality is educational opportunity. While early childhood expansion and paying teachers higher salaries in certain circumstances is desirable, the most important educational reform would be in teacher training institutions and the measurement of teacher quality. In Kansas City and St. Louis we spend a significant amount of money already and for a long time on early childhood in Head Start. We have never measured our long-term success, we have never joined with the community colleges, UMKC, UCM, and the other providers of teachers in challenged districts to overcome low teacher quality and high teacher turnover. The most recent measure of value added success in school districts paints a poor picture of Kansas City’s overall success, including suburban districts on both sides of the State Line, in providing superior education relative to demographics. We remain as a community addicted to trendy silver bullet solutions instead of the hard work of year in year out reform.”

Thomas Curran, president of Rockhurst University: “Closing racial achievement gaps.”

Boosting vocational education

Patrick Ishmael, Show-Me Institute: “A college education can be a stepping stone to a fulfilling career, but so too can a host of blue collar professions that don’t require a degree. Intentionally and not, our educational system has stigmatized professions that don’t need a college education, and yet, some kids would be best served eschewing the debt of a formal degree in favor of vocations that can become very lucrative, reasonably quickly.”

James Harris, political strategist: “College is not the right fit for every young person, and vocational education allows for opportunities to learn career-specific skills that will allow young people to find a family supporting job.”

John Murphy, Shook Hardy & Bacon: “As one of the co-chairs of KCRising, I have become increasingly aware of the need every industry has for technically trained individuals. This need has reached a critical stage and will not, and probably cannot, be met by focusing on traditional undergraduate curricula. We have to do a better job of promoting tech/vocational training as a suitable alternative to a bachelor’s degree.”

Quinton Lucas, Kansas City Council member: “Boosting vocational training will be key for Missouri to remain competitive in attracting new employers.”

Duke Dujakovich, president of greater Kansas City AFL-CIO: “Boosting vocational training would lead to good paying careers that do require a college degree. More and more employers are having problems finding workers with the needed skills to begin a life in the workforce.”

Ken Novak, UMKC professor of criminal justice and criminology: “Boosting vocational education opportunities and lowering the cost of higher education. It’s important to ensure opportunities exist to further train and educate Missourians post-high school in order to maintain a viable workforce.”

Richard Martin, director of government affairs for JE Dunn Construction, former political consultant: “We have done a disservice to our young people by establishing getting a college degree is the only pathway to success. Besides, most college degrees are far too expensive and students graduate with staggering debt loads only to find out that their degree doesn’t come with a job. With vocational education the student knows going in that their are jobs waiting for them when they are ready. In IT, healthcare, construction, hospitality and on and on.

Ryan Silvey, Missouri Public Service commissioner, former state senator: “I believe boosting vocational education is the most pressing need. Traditional college is a wonderful opportunity, but it isn’t for everyone. There are good paying skills jobs that don’t require an advanced degree or the crushing debt that comes along with it. We need to do better at exposing students to those opportunities and de-stigmatizing skills-based vocations.”

John Hancock, political consultant, former Missouri GOP: “A stronger emphasis on vocational education will enable a well trained and re-trained workforce to thrive.”

Expanding charter schools, offering school vouchers

Patrick Tuohey, Show-Me Institute director of municipal policy: “Expanding charter schools, in as much as it presents parents with greater school choice, is an important reform to public education that has shown great promise wherever implemented.”

Woody Cozad, lobbyist and former Missouri GOP chairman: “Public schools in Missouri are awful to mediocre with a handful of exceptions. Raising teacher pay for really good teachers is extremely important. Equally important is getting rid of poor teachers. Much of this can be done by cutting administrative overhead. Missouri is in the middle of the pack among the states in per-pupil spending, but it’s near the very bottom in teacher salaries. Several years ago, a private company told the state board that the company could run the KC Public Schools and cut administration costs by enough to pay for universal pre-K. Sorry, but your list of things to do in public education mostly misses the point.”

Jack Danforth, former U.S. senator: “Expanding charter schools. It is essential to provide families with excellent alternatives for the education of children.”

Lowering cost of higher education

Jay Nixon, former governor: “The continuing escalation of higher ed costs without increase in quality or value is a serious problem.”

Michael Barrett, Missouri State Public Defender director: “The cost of higher education needs to be reined in significantly. It is not only a barrier for many to obtain the education they need to become self-sufficient, but it hampers an otherwise strong middle class that widespread access to higher education was supposed to foster.”

Reducing class sizes

Heather Hall, Kansas City Council member: “Reduce class size so at the earliest grade level, children will get better and more individualized instruction, allowing for more children succeeding earlier.”

Multiple choices, others

Leland Shurin, attorney and chairman of Kansas City Police Board: “We must improve education if Missouri is going to compete in the global economy. An educated citizenry results in reduced violent crime, job growth, attraction of out of state businesses, stronger economy and greater opportunities for all citizens.”

Jason Grill, media consultant: “We need to innovate education in this city, state and country and evolve. However, if I had to pick one from list it is lowering the cost of higher education.”

David Steelman, attorney, member of University of Missouri Board of Curators, former legislator: “Without question I believe the most important issue is providing better educational opportunities for both young and adult learners.”

Vernon Howard, pastor and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City: “Educational inequity across ... schools and districts in the public school systems is the most significant issue to address. As long as any one school in any given public system district is inferior (or lacks a standard of excellence in the 12 basic core elements) then educational inequity exists, placing the individual students as victims whose human rights are being violated; and if the disparity reveals race, ethnic, etc. inequity, then a civil rights violation according to U.S. law. Civil Rights organizations such as SCLC-GKC, wherein I serve, and other like-minded agencies are challenged to have the courage, moral fortitude, intelligence, imagination and will to raise and work on this very legitimate ongoing and seemingly licensed Human and Civil Rights issue within our educational systems. ... We cannot expect that 70 years or so of concerted effort will erase 300 years of educational oppression based upon race and even gender. Let’s be real! This is going to require a long, hard, compassionate, smart, expensive, and philosophically unified effort which understands this truth — racial desegregation does not necessarily translate to educational equity and is not a viable or logical means toward such.